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Politicians tested and found wanting

Josephine Gardiner found NASUWT delegates sceptical about the Opposition parties' policies

The conference season traditionally offers teachers the chance to fire their frustrations at politicians, and the right-wing press an opportunity to demonise scruffy, stroppy teachers. The politicians themselves must strive to conciliate without looking soft.

It remains to be seen whether the profession as a whole is seduced by Labour's New Deal as announced by David Blunkett yesterday, but the start of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers conference in Glasgow looked inauspicious for the three main political parties.

The union's president, Pete Cole, kicked off the proceedings on Monday with a full-blooded assault on the Government's record and Labour's "hypocrisy" over selection.

None of the political parties has been prepared to enter into "genuine consultation with the teaching profession on how to shape future policy", he said. "There is a very real crisis of confidence in politicians."

He tore into Harriet Harman's "staggering naivety" in believing that she could separate the personal from the political, before ridiculing the sentimentality of John Major's speech last year about education as the "birthright of every small bewildered child that walks into school with a shining morning face". Sheer hypocrisy, he said, from a leader planning a full-scale return to selection.

The Liberal Democrats escaped direct censure, but Mr Cole gave Don Foster a dusty response to the latter's speech later in the week: "Perhaps given time I could be persuaded that your party is not an irrelevance," he said.

The president also laid down the broad themes that conference was to pick up repeatedly during the week. Teachers are bearing the brunt of escalating violence in society, he said, and as the number of assaults on teachers rises, so do the numbers retiring on health grounds. Ill-health retirements have quadrupled in the past 10 years, from 1,500 a year to over 6,000, he said.

He also drew attention to the inequities of school funding under the local management of schools formula, which penalises schools with highly qualified or stable staffs. Presumably he will be somewhat mollified by David Blunkett's promise to address this problem.

The first debates on Tuesday launched the conference in traditional NASUWT style with a litany of despair about working conditions.

Delegate after delegate rose to contribute to a picture of a victimised, stressed and ailing profession. A resolution deploring the Government's decision to repeal the 1981 School Premises regulations gave speakers an opportunity to point out that there is now no requirement for classrooms to have windows or for nursery schools to have play areas.

Delegates who were still digesting their breakfasts were treated to a delightful anecdote from a Walsall speaker. A colleague, he said, had been inundated by a shower of maggots falling from the roof space where some pigeons had died and festered.

At one point during the debate on buildings the conference appeared to be in danger of committing the union to a confrontation with Labour over David Blunkett's proposal, announced at the NUT conference last weekend, to get banks to underwrite the Pounds 3.2 billion school repairs backlog. An amendment urged conference to oppose proposals to "encourage school governors or LEAs to borrow money from financial institutions to finance repairs to or maintenance of school buildings, and to campaign for sufficient funds to be provided by central government in the form of grants, not loans."

There was some support for this one delegate called Blunkett's proposal a "loony Labour plan" but a passionate speech by Dave Batty from Sheffield, in which he banged the podium and urged delegates to "get real", ensured that the amendment was demolished.

Resolutions on the lack of non-contact time and the intolerable pressures on special educational needs co-ordinators were impassioned but predictable and passed unanimously, but a debate on pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties raised a new spectre: teachers, according to delegates, are now in danger of attacks from nursery children as delinquents become ever-younger.

But on Wednesday the conference departed from traditional NASUWT territory and endorsed a proposal to seek a "social partnership" with the political parties in order to establish a consensus on raising standards in education. The idea provoked a lively debate, with some delegates arguing that such a stance would dilute the union's "distinctive voice". But Nigel de Gruchy said that the passing of this resolution was "extremely significant", setting an example for unions to "break the vicious circle" of confrontation and allowing "Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown to stop running away from the unions".

He admitted that this partnership might involve urging members to curb wage demands, but that this would be "predicated on a Government committed to social justice".

Coupled with David Blunkett's package of sweeteners for the profession, the prospect of a new era of concord between new Labour and the teachers began to look more likely.

Don Foster's speech was received with great warmth, mainly because it addressed, with some wit and verve, all the issues obsessing the delegates. He mocked nursery vouchers, condemned the demoralising effect of Chris Woodhead's abrasive style and deplored teachers' crumbling working environments.

Labour should take note that a promise that with the Lib Dems there would be "no fudges - we would immediately bring GM schools and CTCs back to the LEAs " was given a particularly loud cheer.

Mr Foster also pushed the right button when he told his listeners that there has been too much emphasis on the rights of parents and pupils and on responsibilities of schools. "The time has surely come to consider reciprocal responsibilities," he said.

At a fringe meeting of the Socialist Education Association on Tuesday evening, Labour's education spokesman Steve Byers outlined many of the proposals that David Blunkett elaborated to the conference yesterday.

He promised that the plan to fund repairs with the help of private finance would not allow the banks to interfere in the control of schools -"the private sector is interested because after a massive slump in the building industry they want a share in a potential Pounds 3.2 billion market". He promised to "do something about workload - form filling and bureaucracy is rife", and criticised those who "take the soft option and blame teachers for every problem in society." Labour wants to work with teachers "to put a firm but flexible disciplinary system in every school".

His speech was received politely but not rapturously. It was significant that questions from the audience were concerned not with the new proposals but with issues that Labour should really have put behind it confusion over the status of "foundation schools ", the Harriet Harman and London Oratory rows suggesting that Labour still has some work to do in convincing classroom teachers that the party has their interests at heart.

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