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Are we downhearted? Er, yes

It should have been a happy Secondary Heads Association gathering, but worries over budgets and war darkened the mood. William Stewart reports

THIS year's Secondary Heads Association conference in Birmingham was supposed to have been a positive affair.

Until recently, John Dunford, general secretary, sensed a new atmosphere among members. The upset and rancour caused by the dispute over wages for teachers on the upper pay spine and the Government's attack on "bog-standard" comprehensives were in the past and the agenda was moving in heads' direction. He felt that by arguing for ministers to put more trust in schools and stop checking up on them so much, he was pushing at an open door.

But the upbeat mood dissolved in the face of two issues that have only recently loomed into view: funding and war in Iraq.

The conference heard that many heads were facing budget shortfalls that were forcing them to consider redundancies at a time when they needed to take on staff to implement the workload agreement.

Dr Dunford said heads had gone into shock as details of budgets emerged. He reported an eight-fold increase in the number of calls to the association's hotline from deputy and assistant heads facing redundancy, and said Education Secretary Charles Clarke could not ignore the issue.

Mr Clarke did not try to. He admitted the extra pound;28 million, announced last week for 36 local authorities, would not solve every problem. Even so he said he was shocked when Michael Chapman, head of Driffield School, East Yorkshire, told him the settlement was by far the worst he had faced in 12 years. "If we go back to 1991, say, and look at spending per pupil, I just don't understand how this could be worse," Mr Clarke said.

He promised to look into the problem. But he later told The TES there would be no new money, even for areas like East Yorkshire that had not benefited from the pound;28m.

He soon found himself under fire on a different front when Kenny Frederick, head of George Green's School, east London, brought up the conflict in Iraq. Ms Frederick demanded to know how teachers were supposed to get pupils to resolve their differences peacefully when Britain was taking "illegal" military action. But Mr Clarke denied that the Government had breached international law and said that Saddam Hussein was a bully who needed to be dealt with.

During an open session, David Johnson of Fair Oak High School, Staffordshire, said he had three children in almost every class with a family member involved in the conflict. "I have never seen assemblies as quiet and intense as when we talk about some of the issues," he said.

Iain Duncan Smith, Conservative leader, also spoke about the war in his maiden speech to a teaching union conference, condemning pupils who truanted to attend peace marches.

His call for schools to be released from centralised bureaucracy was clearly aimed to please but received a decidedly muted reception. And a mention of the Conservative plan to give inner-city parents state scholarships to attend "good schools" was actually hissed.

Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat education spokesman and former SHA member, got a much warmer reception. An old hand on the education conference circuit, he backed the association's ideas of intelligent inspections and accountability and its opposition to school league tables, winning rapturous applause.

But to Mr Dunford's disappointment, chief inspector David Bell did not entirely agree. He told members that giving parents less information would play badly with them and diminish the teaching profession. He insisted that league tables should stay.

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