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Cathy warms to special needs

"A minister is speaking at a National Union of Teachers' conference! Is their (sic) a crack in the Government's stone wall attitude to the NUT?"

screamed an email flyer.

The minister in question was Baroness Ashton, the event was Tuesday's NUT conference on special educational needs, and the buzzword on everyone's lips was inclusion.

The Baroness's appearance was the first by a minister since her boss's decision to boycott the union's annual conference for two years running.

Relations since then have varied between frosty and Siberian.

Those hoping for a verbal punch-up were not sure whether to be encouraged or dismayed by the empty chair set aside for Doug McAvoy, the union's general secretary and fully paid-up New Labour loather. And when Mary Compton, NUT president, left before Baroness Ashton climbed to her feet, hopes were high that the union might have decided to stage its own boycott.

These were dashed when Mr McAvoy eventually arrived halfway through the minister's speech. Of course his tardiness was the Government's fault: he blamed the trains.

But instead of a fight, the audience was treated to a love-in.

A beaming Mr McAvoy praised the Baroness for "being responsive to the union during what has been a difficult period".

Baroness "please call me Cathy" Ashton professed herself "thrilled to get an invitation" from a union whose activists are best known for chasing former education secretary David Blunkett, his guide dog and spin doctor into a broom cupboard.

Even John Bangs, who wants to lead the NUT and continue its rejection of workforce remodelling, was singled out for praise for his help in developing the Government's strategy to make special educational needs part of the education mainstream.

Had the world gone mad? Or was this a cunning plan to undermine Mr Bangs's election chances? Luckily Martin Evans, a teacher from Plymouth, decided to land some punches of his own when he said the workload agreement would reduce the support available for those pupils with special needs.

Mr Bangs also struck a less harmonious note when he attacked the Government over testing, league tables and the inspection regime.

But by then the minister was long gone and even Mr Bangs could not stay angry for long. "I am very pleased Cathy Ashton is practising inclusion, which other ministers have forgotten," he told The TES.

So is this the beginning of a thaw in relations?

"I have always worked with the NUT on the issue of special needs. There is nothing special about me being here today," said Baroness Ashton.

Inclusion goes only so far, it would seem.

Friday magazine 6

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