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Don't bleat in the bunkers, union told

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers offers politicians the first pointers of the Easter conference season.

Politicians would be wrong to dismiss this Easter's teacher conferences as the annual round of whinging and bloodletting. They go to the heart of the problems in schools that a new Government will have to face.

Agendas for each of the three teacher union conferences include complaints about rising class sizes and increasing workload alongside demands for more money for schools.

Rejection of those well-rehearsed grievances along the lines of "they would say that, wouldn't they?" would be easy. The problems themselves will not go away so quickly.

Whoever holds the office of Education and Employment Secretary on May 2 will inherit a deeply disillusioned teaching force and turning the mood of the profession around will be one of the biggest tasks facing the new incumbent.

Gillian Shephard certainly did herself no favours by pulling out of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' assembly in Cardiff at the last minute, citing first illness then diary commitments.

And the debacle over the announcement of the tests for 14-year-olds - scheduled one minute, cancelled the next, and then slipped out in a press release by Conservative Central Office - did not help.

Mrs Shephard has already cancelled an appearance at the National Union of Teachers conference and education minister Eric Forth, who stood in her for at the ATL, said judgments had still to be made about the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers.

He claimed her non-attendance was not a snub to teachers but that she was needed in London for "necessary election preparation work". Reminded that teachers had a vote, he replied rather tartly: "So do another 56 million people."

Mr Forth, normally one of Parliament's most combative politicians, turned in a low key performance consisting basically of a resume of education under the Conservatives which was received politely but with little interest. He was clearly under orders not to rock the boat.

The atmosphere in the conference hall at Cardiff was considerably warmer for David Blunkett, who hopes to take over Mrs Shephard's job under a Labour government, and Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman.

Mr Blunkett won great applause for a promise not to introduce change without consultation and cries of "Hurray!" for Labour's pledge to scrap nursery vouchers.

The ATLis looking for a new deal from the new government. It wants limits on class size, an emergency programme to repair crumbling schools, more books and equipment and funding - not vouchers - for nursery education for three and four-year-olds.

This week it released details of new opinion poll research which showed that 71 per cent of people believed that money spent on the Assisted Places Scheme would be better spent on reducing class sizes.

The ATLHarris poll showed that 53 per cent of people disagreed with the Government's nursery voucher scheme and more than eight out of 10 wanted more cash for schools, books and equipment, better discipline and improved standards of teaching.

The union also revealed high levels of debt and disillusionment among student teachers and increasing numbers of teachers being bullied by headteachers and senior school managers. It is now taking on a new case of a bullied teacher every day. Its stress helpline often receives calls in the middle of the night from victims of vicious campaigns of intimidation and humiliation.

An in-depth study among student teachers, meanwhile, revealed that 98 per cent of trainees believed their training had cost them money and that they were spending on average Pounds 31 a week on travel, photocopying and classroom materials. Some students said they felt humiliated at having to ask their families for cash, others said their limited wardrobes were noticed by pupils and in one case it had led to teasing.

Peter Smith, ATL general secretary, believes a Labour government must hold a summit with the teacher trade unions and local education authorities to discuss its plans for education within 100 days of being elected.

"Those first 100 days will be absolutely crucial," he said. "That is when it will be judged by teachers." He said it was vital that more money should be provided for education and that Labour, which has committed itself to sticking within Government spending plans for the next two years, might have to rethink its priorities.

He said that teachers had to accept that there would not be endless resources for education, whoever was elected. The trade unions faced a stark choice - "to sit in the bunkers bleating the predictable calls for more cash or face some very tough decisions".

Teachers could not claim truancy and exclusions were not issues for them, and that they should be concerned about the low performance of Britain's schools compared with its economic competitors.

"Teachers have to play their full role in addressing and challenging pupil performance. They are absolutely right to resent bitterly being scapegoated but if that bitterness leads them towards curling up in a ball like a hedgehog they must not be surprised if they are ignored. Teachers have got to be receptive to change. There is a chance for teachers with the election, but it won't be a big chance."


* New treatment for teachers - instead of destructive criticism teachers need constructive measures to support classroom teaching and a professional body of their own; * an absolute ceiling of 30 on the size of primary classes - currently 31.8 per cent of primary and 8.5 per cent of secondary school children are in classes with more than 30 pupils; * a funded nursery place for every three and four-year-old - the Government's nursery voucher scheme, which goes nationwide next week, was heavily criticised in a Select Committee report last week which cast doubt on whether it would expand provision; * an emergency repair scheme for crumbling schools - there is now a backlog of Pounds 3 billion for buildings maintenance; * more spending on books and equipment - schools' spending on books in 1994-95 was just Pounds 14.21 per primary pupil and Pounds 27.54 per secondary pupil. The Publishers' Association says spending Pounds 45 per pupil per year is just "adequate".

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