Teacher lockout leaves children at a loose end

Teachers and the local government association have reached an impasse in their negotiations over new working hours, leading to speculation that the government will have to intervene

Around 69,000 teachers have been prevented from showing up to work today because their collective bargaining agreement expired on Sunday and a new one has not been reached.

The lockout will affect almost 900,000 children and adults who are taught by teachers whose working conditions are outlined in the agreement between the teachers union, Danmarks Lærerforening (DLF), and the state and the local government association, KL.

Without the new collective bargaining agreement, teachers cannot come into work, throwing families into disarray and leaving hundreds of thousands at a loose end.

Rikke Østergaard is a mother of three in Måløv. Teachers at the school of her two eldest children, aged 12 and 9, are currently locked out, forcing the family to come up with alternative plans for care and education.

"Right now, the boys think it is pretty exciting," Østergaard told The Copenhagen Post. "Today and tomorrow they are with their paternal grandmother and the following two days, my parents will come over and do some lessons with them. Every day during the lockout, they will be doing their school work following a plan that we have developed with them."

Nationwide, there are just over 8,000 teachers who are not employed through the collective bargaining agreement. They must show up at school as normal, but neither they nor substitute teachers are permitted to take over work from teachers who cannot work because of the conflict, however. That leaves many students with a haphazard schedule.

In order to reduce the burden on parents who would have to look after their children in the intervening time, some schools have chosen to restructure their schedules so students are taught in blocks of lessons as far as possible. Many students will be completely without lessons until the conflict is resolved, however, placing enormous pressure on families to find ways to keep their children occupied and supervised during working hours.

Some businesses and organisations have stepped up to entertain the affected children. In Copenhagen, for example, children who are members of the football association Boldklubben Union can head to football school between 7:30am and 4pm every day while the conflict is going on, and the bakery Nordisk Brødhus on Rantzausgade is offering children the opportunity to bake between 9am and 2pm.

The conflict has arisen because KL and the government want to give schools more flexibility in how a teacher's working hours are divided by scrapping the current 25-hour limit that teachers are allowed to teach. The limit was designed to allow teachers plenty of preparation time, and teachers argue that scrapping the limit and giving headteachers more power to set working hours will only end up reducing the quality of education.

With the two sides looking increasingly entrenched in their position, it looks unlikely that they will reach a compromise. The conflict could in theory last indefinitely, though it is unlikely to last more than the two months that the teachers' union can afford to cover the salaries of the teachers who are locked out of their workplaces.

If the parties cannot find a compromise, the government can step in and write a law to settle the conflict, though this would violate the Danish labour market model which has historically settled working conditions through consensus and negotiation instead of law.

While commentators speculate that an intervention is probably the most likely way to resolve the conflict, PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Socialdemokraterne) refused to say if and when the government would get involved.

"Let the conflict run in accordance with the Danish model," Thorning-Schmidt said at her weekly press conference today. "It's wrong to already talk about a legal intervention. It is just the first day of the conflict."