'I'll be back,' Shephard tells union

The Education Secretary's feisty address to the annual conference of the NASUWT raised jeers and howls from delegates. Clare Dean reports

It was Gillian Shephard's third encounter with the annual conference of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers and she was in feisty mood.

"You've said goodbye to me twice, don't hold your breath, I'll be back. "

This was the Education and Employment Secretary's only appearance at a teacher conference this Easter. She had cried off from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers at the last minute and claimed it was not customary for the Secretary of State to go to the National Union of Teachers.

Her speech to delegates gathered in Bournemouth was met with hisses, boos, jeers and mocking laughter. In truth, though, the hostility was aimed at the policies not the person.

As Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary, told her: "We do value the fact that you are very knowledgeable and have a deep experience of the education service.

"We think you could possibly return as shadow education spokesperson. I am sure that would be quite an experience to come back literally as a former shadow of yourself." Mrs Shephard looked bemused.

She had faced her audience head-on saying she would not tolerate teachers who went on strike or took industrial action. Remember this is the union whose members have walked out of schools rather than teach disruptive pupils.

Claims that Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, was doing an excellent job and a pledge that the Government would consult fully before introducing testing at key stage 3 were met with howls of derision.

And she ploughed on regardless when the jeers drowned out part of her speech talking about appraisal, expert teachers and testing.

The only parts of it to win applause were claims that Labour would destroy grant-maintained schools (the NASUWT calls them government-maintained schools) and praise for the union's hardline stance on discipline.

Mrs Shephard's reception from the conference was more lively than usual, with her attendance coming just two days after the Conservatives launched their general election manifesto.

She, in turn, was deliberately controversial and more up-front than previously.

Mrs Shephard did, however, go part way to apologising for the pace of change inflicted on the profession, saying: "I am not afraid to say that we have learnt lessons about the best way of introducing change."

In a press conference beforehand, though, she would not admit that she was saying sorry.

And although she was in feisty mood, she was not spirited enough to stick to the final sentence of her set text: "You can only be sure with the Conservatives." That would have gone down like a lead balloon.

Don Foster, the Liberal Democrats education spokesman, was the politician who received the warmest reception from the Bournemouth conference. While teachers may well support his party's policies, however, they are unlikely to vote for it.

Labour came in for some heavy criticism for sending Peter Kilfoyle, a member of its education team, rather than David Blunkett, its shadow education secretary.

"Many NASUWT members up and down the country are paid up members of the Labour party," said Mr de Gruchy, "and many, many are very disappointed he could not find the time to come to address our conference."

Mr de Gruchy voiced serious doubts about Labour's arithmetic over funding to cut class size in primary schools. He told Mr Kilfoyle: "We hope new Labour will improve like wine and will become a little bit like old Labour."

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