Teachers in London and Doncaster were to begin refusing to cover for a record number of vacancies this week, following overwhelming ballots for industrial action. The action, by members of the NUT and NASUWT unions, came just as a survey published in the Times Educational Supplement (TES) found that secondary schools in England and Wales are short of about 10,000 teachers. Teachers in more and more areas are voting for action. Ballots are under way in Leicester, Middlesbrough, Nottingham, Portsmouth, Southampton, Manchester, Reading and Kent.
They are about to begin in Hertfordshire, Hartlepool, Sandwell, Ipswich, Liverpool, Barnsley, Medway towns and Rochdale. The action could see schools forced to send children home for part of the week by the middle of this month.
If that happens it will not be the fault of teachers. The blame lies with the government, which has increased workloads, pilloried comprehensive education and refused decent pay increases for teachers. Joe Dunn is the head of Southey Green Junior School in education secretary David Blunkett's Sheffield constituency.
His school was forced to turn children away before half term due to lack of staff. That was before any action by the teachers' unions. He said, 'The secretary of state should be saying, 'We recognise there's a problem and we are doing all we can to address it.' Instead the government tries to say there's no shortage, no problem.'
One in 25 of the secondary schools that responded to the TES survey had seven or more vacancies. Three schools had 13. David Blunkett refuses to say there is a crisis of teacher numbers, although New Labour has been forced to promise moves to address it. But his gimmicks avoid the central issues-reducing workloads and giving a decent across the board pay increase with no strings.
The action called by the unions so far can highlight the crisis New Labour has created. But more will be needed to wring serious concessions from the government. There is a growing confidence among teachers, who know that the record shortages put them in a strong position to win better conditions and funding. Groups of teachers in several London schools produced local bulletins arguing for a yes vote in the ballot, further action and a political campaign over education.
Those examples need to be repeated to build the pressure on union leaders to call effective national action in the run-up to the general election.