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Animal growls and pet grumbles

William Stewart hears some beastly noises and complaints about the workforce deal at the PAT conference

From fears over funding to animal impersonations, England's smallest classroom teachers' union presented its usual mix of polite lobbying and eccentricity at its conference this week.

The Professional Association of Teachers may have fewer than 35,000 members but, by holding its annual gathering at the start of the silly season, it usually manages to make the papers with stories that are often, well, a bit silly.

This year in Bournemouth there were no calls for a minister for body hair removal or for dogs to be used as classroom assistants. But The TES did walk into one seminar to be confronted by a group of teachers shouting "Wake up Polly!" to a glove puppet. There was a serious point: puppets can be a useful way of engaging young children.

A more bizarre sight was Jean Gemmell, PAT general secretary, turning her seminar on creativity in the classroom into a mime and dance presentation: to the overture from the musical Carousel, members acted out roles as circus animals, strongmen and fairground rides.

The association's traditional, upright values came to the fore when chairman Barry Matthews lamented the difficulties caused by the loss of old-fashioned discipline in schools.

The retired lecturer in timber engineering used his speech to talk of the need to develop "innovative" ways to establish authority without breaking the law.

He struggled to come up with any examples afterwards, but said that a "clip round the ear" had never done him any harm. Corporal punishment had worked for some, he added, but he stopped short of calling for its return.

Punishment was never on the cards for Stephen Twigg, the education junior minister, who was treated to a courteous standing reception from the union that prides itself on never taking industrial action.

But his speech, largely a restatement of existing Government policy, was followed by searching questions on subjects including school funding, selection and the Children Bill.

PAT members voted for a motion saying that the full implications of the bill had not been fully realised, and calling for training for all staff in child protection.

There were also calls to scrap national tests, improve pay for assistants and monitoring children educated at home more strictly. A motion backing the workforce agreement was passed. But it also raised fears that the deal could founder on inadequate funding and prompted one of the most contentious debates.

Delegates said schools still did not understand how the deal to "remodel" the workforce would be implemented and said it neglected the needs of pupils. One even suggested that the PAT should join the National Union of Teachers in opposing it.

Mrs Gemmell admitted the jury was still out on whether there was enough funding but told her members that "standing still was not an option".

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