Britain's school teachers are in angry confrontation with the government, and school children seem certain to be the chief sufferers from the conflict. Sir Keith Joseph, Britain's education secretary and one of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's staunchest allies, is standing firm in his determination to hold down educational costs and raise teaching standards. But the leading teachers' trade unions have called for his resignation and say they will refuse to teach new secondary education courses when they are introduced later this year.
Before the dispute over the introduction of a new secondary-level examination arose, Sir Keith was already having trouble with the teachers' unions, particularly the National Union of Teachers (NUT), which is the largest and most vociferous of them. Pursuing claims for better pay, the NUT held out in its refusal to let its members supervise meal-breaks and other out-of-class activities.
Sir Keith, meanwhile, demanded higher teaching standards and denounced selective work stoppages by teachers in many parts of the country. As parents' organizations seethed, hundreds of thousands of children had no classes to go to.
Upon this heaving sea of troubles, Sir Keith decided to launch a new system of examinations. One of his basic aims is to create uniform teaching standards in England and Wales, and to produce a structure for examinations better suited to the needs of British industry.
To achieve this he decided to scrap a two-tier system of examinations for secondary school pupils and to replace it with a single qualification to be called the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). Initially the teaching unions thought this was a good idea. But when they realized that Sir Keith planned to introduce the new examination before resolving disputes over pay and duties, they changed their mind.
The unions now say that Joseph is not giving them enough time to prepare for the GSCE course. The NUT decided to go on teaching the old courses, even though, under Sir Keith's plan, there will be no examinations at the end of them.
In general, parents agree with Sir Keith's wish to improve education and to make it more relevant to the late 20th century.
There is no sign that Thatcher will try to defuse the crisis by moving Sir Keith to another job. Joseph has said he will not be standing again for Parliament at the next general election. That is likely to mean that he will remain education secretary for the next two years.