Teachers have voted in favour of the first national strike to hit state schools for 22 years, a major threat to Gordon Brown's plans to curb public sector pay.
Members of Britain's biggest teachers' union, the 200,000-strong National Union of Teachers, have backed a one-day national stoppage on 24 April. Union leaders are also warning that the stoppage, expected to close hundreds of schools for the day, will be followed by rolling strike action during the summer and, if necessary, autumn.
Yesterday's ballot showed 75.2 per cent of those who voted were in favour of strike action. But ministers pointed out that the ballot attracted only a 32 per cent turnout.
The action, taken in protest at a 2.45 per cent pay offer – more than other public sector workers have been granted in recent months – is part of a much wider problem facing the Government, with several public sector unions lining up for confrontation.
Steve Sinnott, the general secretary of the NUT, said: "The Government is wrong to determine a pay increase for teachers below the rate of inflation. The rate of inflation is 4.1 per cent. The consequences of real-term pay cuts are familiar to us. They were a feature of the 'boom and bust' years before 1997. In that period, schools suffered from recruitment and retention problems; there were teacher shortages and morale was low. The NUT wants no return to those bad old days."
The award, which would bring the starting salary for a new teacher to £20,627 from September, is part of a three-year deal giving teachers an extra 7 per cent by 2010. The union's annual conference demanded an extra 10 per cent at Easter but union leaders are setting as their first goal a pay increase equal to the level of inflation. It also warned of industrial action this year to reduce class sizes.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said it was "disappointing that a small proportion of teachers are threatening to disrupt children's education in this way". The award had been recommended by an independent pay review body and accepted by the Government.
"The majority of teachers don't want a dispute," she added. "The ballot shows strike action was backed by less than a quarter of NUT members, about one in 10 of all the teacher workforce.
"A strike will serve only to disrupt children's learning, inconvenience parents and place a burden on fellow teachers. We will support headteachers and local authorities to keep schools open. We urge the NUT to reconsider."
Leaders of the second biggest teachers' union, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said its members had shown "no widespread appetite" for industrial action on pay.
But Chris Keates, its general secretary, warned the feeling over teachers' workload was "very different".
Mick Brookes, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said his members believed a pay deal below the rate of inflation "wasn't helpful for recruitment" but preferred to seize on the pay review body's pledge to look at the deal again next year if inflation rose. He said strikes served simply "to annoy parents".
* Members of the Communications Workers' Union voted yesterday to reject proposed pension changes. Strikes are now likely unless there is a better offer from the Royal Mail.
Why the 1986 strike started
The last national teachers' strike in 1986 was the culmination of more than two years of industrial action. The mood in schools was similar to today. Teachers had been awarded a catch-up pay rise of between 11 and 15 per cent as a result of the Clegg Commission inquiry in 1980. However, over successive years of negotiations, the benefits of the Clegg package had been eroded. The parallel today is that Labour gave a significant boost to the pay and status of teachers when it first came intooffice in 1997. However, NUT leaders say this year's deal will be the third in succession to be lower than the rate of inflation. The 1980s dispute proved long-running and, at its recent conference, the NUT showed that it is prepared to implement a similar programme of rolling strikes.