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Offbeat union will dance on conference floor

"Any publicity is good publicity" according to the leader of England's smallest classroom teaching union, preparing for a rare spell in the limelight at its annual conference next week.

Past media coverage of the Professional Association of Teachers conference has not always focused on the most serious aspects of policy as calls for dogs to be used as assistants and the creation of a secretary of state for the removal of body hair have grabbed the headlines.

But general secretary Jean Gemmell takes a sanguine view. "I would rather that PAT was mentioned in a jokey way rather than not all," she said.

"Because the worst thing is people not knowing you exist."

PAT was formed in 1970 during a period of staffroom unrest, as a teachers'

organisation that would not take industrial action, a pledge that Mrs Gemmell still believes is hugely relevant. "We are a group of people who think industrial action in all its forms is an anathema for people who are part of a caring profession," she said. "Because the people who suffer are the children." But how can PAT hope to have any influence? Does it just rely on ministers' goodwill?

"No we don't - we rely on what is rational," counters Mrs Gemmell.

"Sometimes we are consulted because we don't threaten action, because people know that the view we give will be a reasoned one, that it will be based in pragmatism because we know we have got to make it work."

This pragmatic approach is likely to come to the fore next week in Bournemouth when delegates are expected to welcome the workforce agreement but warn that inadequate funding could damage its implementation. Mrs Gemmell is still unsure whether the announced funding increases will be enough to deliver 10 per cent of the day for marking and preparation for all teachers as promised.

What the 64-year-old former secondary head describes as her union's "high moral ground" will be highlighted when delegates discuss a call for more to be done to protect children from exploitation by the media and business.

Advertising, baby dummy makers and "sex-obsessed teenage magazines" are all expected to be condemned.

PAT's more eccentric side should also be in evidence when Mrs Gemmell, a keen director of musicals and opera in her spare time, takes a seminar on creativity in the classroom. Delegates do not realise it yet, but they will be spending an hour putting together a mime and dance presentation to the overture from Carousel.

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