Analysis: Livid in the staffroom

Teachers, normally placid and well-behaved creatures, are ready to strike to protect their pensions.

By Alex Stevenson

Brows in the staffroom have never been so furrowed. Nothing riles teachers like a threat to their pensions. "It's one of the few things that really get people stirred up," one deputy headteacher admits. She says the mood is "livid".

In local meetings, National Union of Teachers (NUT) members are claiming a cover-up. They think the government is covering up the real reason for the proposed increase in pension contributions, from 6.4% to 9.5%. Ministers claim a "black hole" exists in teachers' pensions; union leaders challenge them to come up with the specific proof. "I think it's the one thing they would strike over," the deputy warns.

Staffrooms up and down the country are on the warpath. Balloting is taking place now among members of the NUT and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL). The latter's decision to ballot is particularly surprising; the last time it did so for a national action was in 1979.

Are we about to see teachers walk out of the classroom? Judging by the rhetoric of the union leaders, it's a real possibility.

The current dispute dates back to a 2007 'cap and share' agreement, in which teachers' unions agreed to accept increased pension contributions – so long as the government came up with evidence that the move is necessary. "They're looking at totally different things from that," Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), says. In addition to hiking the pensions, the age at which the pension becomes available – 60, for those who were in the scheme before January 2007 – is rocketing upwards. It may end up as high as 68, Ms Blower claims.

Ministers' timing couldn't be worse. They switched the indexing of pensions from retail price inflation (RPI) to consumer price index (CPI) inflation in April. The unions would only rule out strikes if, in addition to abandoning the RPI switch, the government commits to a full public valuation of teachers' pensions. Ministers, in short, are "not even remotely in the same ballpark" as union leaders.

It's not going to happen, so the unions, disillusioned by the firm government position, are already preparing strike action. Voting ends on June 14th; an initial one-day strike could then take place on June 30th, with more to follow if Ms Blower and her colleagues agree it's necessary.

"The reason we're taking action this term is that we've been in the negotiations and we haven't seen any signs of good faith," she says. Talks have been going on for months, to no avail.

A one-day strike would only have a limited effect – schools cope with teacher training days all the time, after all. The problem will only become acute if follow-up strikes take place. Then headteachers will have to make judgement calls about whether they can keep their schools open, based on what proportion of their staff are members of striking unions. Parents will then be forced to make alternative childcare arrangements, or take days off work to look after their children. Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, predicts that the effect will "magnify quite quickly". He supports the strike – but, as his union isn't involved in balloting, would have to remain neutral in the event of industrial action.

This is more complex than a straightforward clash, however. Both sides have internal weaknesses. The NUT and ATL are keen on striking, but other unions – most notably the NASUWT – believe the threat of strike action will only hurt their cause. Its officials say that it would be disingenuous to ballot for strike action before talks have been completed. They're happy keeping their distance from the union coalition which has formed on the issue.

Ms Blower is defensive. "The fact is that by the time we would be taking action, assuming a successful ballot, the negotiations will be over," she says. "If we have not balloted for action this term, because of the way the terms have fallen, we would be in September, trying to gee our members up for a campaign of industrial action when by then a lot of things from the government's point of view be over." This is more than just a timetabling issue, however. She adds: "There might be a sense in which what our threatened action is doing is providing some leverage for ministers who might be saying to the Treasury, this is not what you should be doing…"

All of which leads to that classic governmental divide between the Department for Education and the Treasury. Privately, officials at the latter are sympathetic. They probably realise that a monstrous clash over pensions isn't the best way to win teachers' sympathy to their academy reforms. It's the Treasury, determined to cut the deficit at all costs, which could be providing the problem.

"Ministers are fully aware of how serious it is," Hobby says. "The question is whether they or the Treasury will win out." In public, he acknowledges, both departments are united on the need to tackle the pensions problem. Behind closed doors officials talk about the "collective" government position – and mean it. More evidence, then, that compromise for this quarter seems unlikely.

Public opinion is likely to be split, but any suspicion that teachers are ignoring the plight of those in the private sector who don't have any pension scheme at all could pose problems for the NUT. That's certainly the view of Graham Stuart, the Conservative chair of the Commons' education committee.

"I would hope everybody would sit down a moment, take account of where we are and seek to behave in a fair and equitable way," he says.

"Nobody likes when inflation is going as it is and there's a pay freeze, no one wants to be asked to pay more. It's entirely the job of unions to represent their members – but to threaten strike action even as you're going through talks, while most people have little or no pension to fall back on at all, is not something that's going to carry public sympathy."

Later this week the two sides will meet for one of the handful of meetings remaining. Chancellor George Osborne is thought to be looking for some sort of announcement to be made by the middle of the month.

You can rely on the government not to make concessions. Teaching unions, backed by the strong feeling among their members and riled by poor progress in talks so far, are unlikely to back down without a major shift from one side or the other. They are nowhere near, as Ms Blower says, being able to "bridge the gap". So don't hold your breath for any breakthrough before June 30th – whatever the general public may think.