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Positive honking and no fireworks

No sparks flew at the headteachers' annual conference - just geese, report Karen Thornton and Clare Dean

THE threat of industrial action, the debut of a new schools standards minister and a few days by the seaside during half-term - the National Association of Head Teachers' annual conference in Torquay last week had all the hallmarks of the big set-piece event, but without the fireworks provided by the classroom unions.

There was little debate or dissent at the Riviera Centre over motions ranging from performance tables to funding, pay and training.

Even the threat of industrial action by heads over workload receded after schools minister David Miliband used his maiden speech to state that negotiation, not conflict, was the way forward.

His comments came a day after delegates committed the NAHT national council to a New Year ballot on industrial action if progress is not made on cutting workload by the end of December 2002.

David Hart, NAHT general secretary, said afterwards: "Mr Miliband is right, we have to get stuck into negotiation. If the Government is saying that the STRB report is the basis on which negotiation can take place, I think we can negotiate a deal. Industrial action is less likely to happen."

Mr Hart wants a 45-hour week for all staff. He also wants more management time for senior leaders. Action, if agreed, would involve boycotting initiatives without affecting pupils' education.

Just one motion, arguing that children with complex special needs should not be placed in mainstream schools "if the efficient education of the majority of children would be compromised", proved slightly contentious.

There were lighter moments. Julia Cleverdon, chief executive of Business in the Community, ran a short video on lessons in leadership to be learned from geese flying in V-shaped formation. "Quality honking", whereby those behind encourage those setting the pace in the front, emerged as a key phrase.

Rona Tutt, head of a special needs school in Hertfordshire, called for Education Secretary Estelle Morris to put her "big picture" about education into the public domain.

She said: "We are told the primary numeracy and literacy strategies are being extended because of their success in raising standards, when the only subject where standards have gone on rising is science - which has no national strategy."

Simon Springett, also from Hertfordshire, had his own suggestions for the "big picture": "A Constable with the educational haywain stuck in the middle of the river; a Jackson Pollock, providing all the clarity of the seriously disturbed; a Seurat, celebrating intensity of light but profoundly dotty?

"Of course, we all know that an effective teacher is a cubist Picasso with several eyes in the back of the head," he concluded.

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