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Contented union pats Kelly on the head

The NASUWT conference saw smiles instead of the traditional Easter complaints while the president fondly compared Ruth Kelly to his dog, reports Michael Shaw

"We've never had it so good!" exclaimed Ron Clooney of the NASUWT union executive to nods of agreement from the hall.

Teachers who went to the wrong Easter conference by mistake would have found themselves in a bizarre parallel universe. The classic Easter teachers' get-together is snarling staff threatening strikes and bemoaning their lot.

But NASUWT teachers meeting in Birmingham were generally content with their union's achievements, united and on-message.

It was the first conference since the union's partnership with the Government, other associations, and employers helped teachers get a tenth of their timetables free for planning and marking.

And guess who was the conference darling? None other than the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, who received nine rounds of applause during her speech.

Brian Garvey, the union's president, compared Ms Kelly to his dog - but meant it as a compliment. She and the long-haired Jack Russell had the same birthday, he explained, and "both of them have got very likeable natures".

Ms Kelly responded by giving the NASUWT's collective tummy a tickle. She promised to continue working closely with the union and to give teachers even greater protection from naughty children.

Even her proposals to let local authorities give schools warning notices demanding action in 15 days, which angered and astonished other unions, were welcomed by the NASUWT as a weapon against irresponsible headteachers.

Ms Kelly and the union's leaders could take further encouragement from a vote suggesting the vast majority of members supported the NASUWT's close relationship with the Government.

A delegation of teachers from South Derbyshire made the polite suggestion that, while the national agreement had been a jolly good idea and done many excellent things, the union should perhaps consider a survey to double-check that it was still getting results.

This mild-mannered proposal was soundly defeated. The union's executive and other members called the proposers militants and warned that questioning the agreement would land them back in the "the dark days" before they had influence.

However, later that week in Torquay, National Union of Teachers' members lambasted their comrades for getting into bed with the Government.

The NUT did not sign the workload agreement which led to the so-called social partnership with government and the setting up of a number of joint groups to discuss pay and conditions.

John Howarth, a Bradford teacher, said: "They (the NASUWT and Association of Teachers and Lecturers) have invested so much in developing a cosy relationship with ministers. The problem with this kind of relationship is that when teachers face pay cuts as they did with the introduction of TLRs (pay for senior staff), these unions are impotent (and unable) to protect their members' interests."

NUT members attacked the 2.5 per cent pay increase, awarded by the ministers following the School Teachers' Review Body recommendation, which is set over two years. Dave Rue, from Burnley, said: "The latest pay award of 2.5 per cent over two years is not just disappointing, it is an insult.

At a rate of inflation of just over 4 per cent, this is a pay cut."

The NASUWT did not spend the whole week cosying up to the Government.

Chris Keates, its general secretary, warned Ms Kelly that aspects of the education Bill could "put the building blocks in place for the dismantling of state education".

The Education Secretary was also heckled during a question- and-answer session when she suggested that pupil behaviour was improving and that academies were not worsening teachers' pay and conditions.

But the heckling was quieter than that aimed at one of the union's own headteacher members.

Delegates backed a motion saying that headteachers should be forced to show they could still hack it in the classroom.

Graham Dawson, of the union's executive, said headteach- ers were like General Meltchett in the TV comedy series Blackadder, "15 miles behind the lines judging classroom practice from a safe distance".


Diary 17

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