The growing row over class sizes has brought forward afresh the spectre of industrial action by teachers. Is this a threat which is past its sell-bydate? Or do beleaguered teachers, fenced in on all sides by financial cutbacks, have no alternatives but brandish their last obvious weapon?
THE CONDEMNATION OF the major teachers' unions' decision last week to ballot their members on strike action was surprisingly widespread. All major political parties agreed to criticise the teachers' representatives; even the NUT general secretary Doug McAvoy lambasted his own members for setting up the possibility of one-day strikes this summer over class sizes.
So are strikes by teachers becoming a thing of the past? Or do the unions have a fair point that classrooms are becoming seriously overcrowded? The Catholic Herald sought views across the Catholic education world:
MARGARET SMART, Director of the Catholic Education Service: "Everybody recognises the pressures which teachers are under and have been for a number of years. But in the short term, it is inevitably the children who suffer. It is very difficult to consider a strike in that light. The feelings of many teachers on this are probably not being reflected accurately by the union conferences.
"On the question of class size, much of the tension is about job pressure rather that about class size. I suspect that it is schools being forces to cut jobs which is in effect increasing class sizes.
From talking to Catholic teachers and governors, it is clear that they are under similar pressures to other schools. In some areas the pressures are greater because of the complexities of formula funding, which still discriminate against voluntary aided schools. It is an ongoing struggle."
MALCOLM PITT, Secretary to the Bishops' Conference World of Work Committee: "The decision of the teachers' conference does reflect a great discontent among teachers, and among some parents and governors too. I disagree that the conferences have been hijacked by leftie activists'; teachers do have a right to express their views, and of course any decision is subject to a democratic vote by all members.
"Industrial action depends on to what extent consultative practice is working and the fear among many teachers is that their opinions are not being noted. Nobody, I am sure, wants to disrupt education. But there has to be a right to industrial action.
"My own feeling is that any action should be in the context of a wider social movement, in particular consultation with parents and governors. If the teachers decide on industrial action, one day strikes would be much more effective and less damaging than a long, protracted dispute. I would be much more concerned about the exclusion of children from the classroom (under a rota system to keep numbers down)." WILLIE SLAVIN, Secretary of the Association of Catholic Schools and Colleges and a headteacher at St Begh's Primary School, Whitehaven, Cumbria: "I can understand why some teachers go for the problem of class size, it is something that they all feel stressed about. In my own school I am forced to have a couple of classes of 34, my roll goes up in September, but I cannot afford any more staff so that will inevitably mean larger classes.
"It is an easy issue to stir up trouble about. As sure as the sun comes up tomorrow teachers will argue against overcrowding. But there is a larger issue at stake which could get lost. The big issue is the funding of education this debate distracts from that problem, although class sizes will inexorably go up with a squeeze in funding.
"In the past decade we have built up a strong alliance between teachers, governors, local authorities and parents, which has been very effective at criticising bad policy. Unilateral strike action by teachers could damage that alliance. Doug McAvoy knows that, and this is why he has criticised the strike ballot.
"One outcome of this debate could very well be local agreernents, where teachers, say, agree to take on an extra five pupils per class for an extra /500. We have already seen this sort of breaking away from national pay structures at the likes of the Oratory School in London."
MARK PH1LPOT, Secretary of the Catholic Teachers' Federation and headteacher at St Richard Gwyn High, Flint, north Wales: "In terms of my own school, I try to ensure that classes do not go beyond 30. There is still a strain on teachers, though, in taking on an additional load; for example extra tutoring out of hours. The big difficulty is that teachers have less time to spend on administrative or pastoral duties; heads of year, for example, have less time to spend with youngsters at a time when an increasing number are experiencing family difficulties at home.
"I would much prefer that there should not need to be the recourse to strikes. But, you cannot remove the right to withdraw your labour, unless there is a guarantee that the other side will respect the decisions of an independent pay review body. It is interesting, though, that doctors are looking at whether they should strike over night-time call outs.
"If a body who are supposedly among the most upright in society can do that, there is a case for other professions to do likewise."
SR MARGARET MARY, Headmistress of the independent Catholic school, New Hall, Chelmsford, Essex: "We have just had research done about the reasons why parents optin to the independent sector, and class size did emerge as a significant factor in that.
"We haven't got a problem with class sizes; our classes work out to about one to 20. But, certainly judging by the wider information, there is a problem in education generally. Some researchers say that class size does not matter, but that refutes the fact that the time spent with each individual child is important.
"So much work today is not the teacher talking at the class, but children doing their own work, or working in groups, while the teacher facilitates that work. Obviously if there are too many children, the teacher cannot spend adequate time with them all the children do is teach themselves.
"I'm sure the answer is not strikes. That harms the children, and does damage to the standing of the teaching profession.
"But the only alternative is for the Government to recognize that there is a problem, and put more money towards reducing class sizes."
Interviews by Murray White.