Dickensian union enjoys best of times

ANYONE still unsure if the Professional Association of Teachers is trapped in a blissful time-warp only needed to attend the association's evening of authentic Victorian music hall.

Most delegates in Telford, Shropshire, for the annual PAT conference joined in the old-fashioned entertainment at the hotel venue, singing along heartily to songs like "My old man said follow the van".

In fact, a music-hall atmosphere prevailed throughout the conference, with plenty of nostalgia and old jokes between the serious motions. Thankfully, none of the speakers launched into song, as happened at a previous conference.

A repeated theme was that things were better in the past, when teachers administered discipline and parents taught proper values. "I wish I could resurrect Charles Dickens to come and support me," said Shetland primary teacher Wendy Dyble, before conceding that workhouses were a bad idea.

Strong support was given to the motion "Conference believes that children should be taught that respect and service for others are of greater value to society than 'me', 'more' and 'money'".

Primary teacher Wendy Blythe proposed it because of her horror that her school in Portsmouth had not encouraged lessons celebrating the life of the Queen Mother.

With children as young as six bringing cannabis to school, drugs were a cause for concern. Jane Lovey, drugs researcher and former teacher, said:

"There is no doubt that for pupils, for whom school has little joy to offer, their first experience of smoking cannabis, crack cocaine or heroin is a wonderful one."

Some comments were puzzling. One delegate noted that: "Teachers should be a fine wine not fizzy water."

Outside the conference, supply teacher Nardia Foster urged cultural awareness courses for overseas teachers coming to Britain to prepare them for the difficulties they woud face with local behaviour and culture. Ms Foster, PAT regional officer for London told delegates she had been appalled at overseas teachers left without housing, support or air tickets home after teaching jobs fell through.

"Recruiting agencies need to think about the person they are bringing to the UK, physically, morally and spiritually.

"In the UK teachers do not just teach, they also have to deal with behavioural problems and pastoral care. Overseas teachers are not used to that responsibility."

There were also claims that some private schools were "at best eccentric, at worst corrupt" in the way they treated their staff.

Parents pay thousands of pounds in fees, yet, it was claimed, some staff at private schools earn as little as pound;9,000 - the basic annual salary a state school teacher could expect on passing through the pay threshold is pound;27,894.

The PAT, which has members from both state and private sectors, said it was time to subject independent schools to the same scrutiny applied to their taxpayer-funded counterparts.

Education minister Baroness Ashton, speaking to the conference, answered fears that the delay in checks by the Criminal Records Bureau would lead to nurseries closing down. The Government was this week forced to postpone Thursday's deadline for care home workers to get bureau clearance because of the huge backlog.

But Baroness Ashton said she had been reassured all checks on teachers and nursery staff would be done before term starts in September.

And the union that famously voted for dogs to be allowed to be classroom assistants heard general secretary Jean Gemmell warn against giving too much responsibility to support staff.

The PAT re-affirmed its commitment to a no-strike policy and opposition to a merger with other big teacher associations. Mrs Gemmell won a standing ovation when she flashed up the PAT's logo and said: "Doug McAvoy (general secretary of the National Union of Teachers) calls for a super union - he is welcome to join."

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