Addressing North Lanarkshire members of the Educational Institute of Scotland, Mrs Gillespie said the educational agenda had been "hijacked" by ministers and senior Scottish Office officials. "The Tory agenda has been bought and parents are starting to look at the figures. They are routinely exercising choice," she said.
Mrs Gillespie said statisticians were the "trainspotters" of education. "They are like people with anoraks and notebooks who stand on railway bridges, fascinated by figures no one else thinks are very significant. They have lost sight of the human effort that goes into the numbers. The numbers are true, they are just meaningless."
Even tables based on "added value" would still be league tables of numbers. "We have to move away from the system of education the Government has introduced where we are merely looking at it in figures and products. We do not want education by nonsensical statistics," she said.
Mrs Gillespie advised EIS members to build alliances with parents, their natural supporters. She did not want to "shop around" with education as the market forces model dictated. "What parents actually like as shoppers is to have confidence in what they are buying," she stated.
Since Michael Forsyth's arrival as a Scottish Office minister in 1987, education had been under sustained attack, forcing the system on to the defensive. The Secretary of State's latest campaign on comparative spending between Scotland and England did not show the Government was injecting more money into the system. "In 'effective terms', they are definitely not giving more money than ever before," Mrs Gillespie stated.
She admitted more was spent in Scotland but insisted it was largely due to limits on class sizes and that average class sizes in secondary had risen as more pupils stayed on. The maximum of 20 in a practical class was significant. A secondary in England with 1,000 pupils was likely to have around 12 fewer teachers than its Scottish counterpart and classes south of the border had anything up to 40 pupils. It was little wonder there was a "national crisis every summer when they find out nobody is doing science". In contrast, the most popular Highers, apart from English and mathematics, were physics, chemistry and biology. "Smaller classes do matter," Mrs Gillespie said.
She called for an extensive programme of school closures, which too often had been met by "knee-jerk, hysterical reaction".
May Ferries, EIS president and a Glasgow primary teacher, told members 300 jobs were likely to go in the city. Teachers on temporary contracts were likely casualties as the council sought to avoid compulsory redundancies. No temporary teacher had been given a permanent contract for 15 months.
In the main debate of the day, delegates voted by 35-34 to support a call for an immediate ballot on industrial action against local cuts, despite pleas from senior officer-bearers. Drew Morrice, the union's local secretary, said staffing standards would be maintained despite cuts of #163;3 million to #163;4.5 million. North Lanarkshire had also assured negotiators there would be no compulsory redundancies.
But Maureen Watson, Cumbernauld High, said teachers on temporary contracts were likely to be "booted out unceremoniously". Some schools had up to 40 per cent of staff on such contracts and action was needed to defend them.