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Reignite the flame

The message will be echoed across the teacher conferences. It will be the sound of a profession exhausted by its top-heavy workload. It cannot be dismissed as ritual moaning, says Peter Smith.

OVER THE next two weeks the teachers' conference season will be yet again upon us - but if you were a delegate at any of these tribal gatherings and happened to doze off, when you jolted awake you wouldn't be certain where you were.

Are you with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in Belfast? The National Union of Teachers in Harrogate? Or the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers in Llandudno? Different their styles may be, but their agendas are so similar that you could be forgiven for thinking that Captain Kirk had beamed you up to an alternative teacher planet. Why should that be? Are the three unions, admittedly in different dialects, genuinely articulating the same genuine concerns?

Or are they, in a covert or coincidental producer-interest conspiracy, making one last attempt to persuade the British public that the UK education service is finally teetering on the brink of collapse? And if so, will they succeed?

Alternatively, are those who think that Tony Blair's triplicate political commitment to education actually matters also correct in concluding that we don't need three teacher unions? That we certainly don't need them singing to the same karaoke sheet at different times, in different keys, and in different, expensive concert venues? And, what is more, that we can do without their chanting a disharmonious dirge so obviously out of tune with any recognisable political reality, whatever the government in power . . . ?

It is easy enough to be dismissive. It's easy to suggest that union conferences are little more than self-indulgent chatfests designed for delegates who enjoy nothing better than facing a captive audience. It's easy, too, to characterise the regular conference gallery-players as disguising addiction to the past as a yearning for radical change.

The problem is that such a verdict is all too facile. It ignores the fact that the unions' annual conferences are the way in which they keep faith with their different constituencies by giving them the democratic opportunity to outline their concerns and priorities. And no one ever praised democracies for being neat, tidy and predictable.

So what are this year's priorities? The Government's Green Paper reform programme, obviously enough, ranks high.

The Government should take teachers' concerns very seriously indeed. The anxieties are not trade union activist inventions. They are the authentic reservatios of the thousands of practitioners who make the education service work, those practitioners on whom the Government relies to pull off its promises to the electorate. Not-so-new Labour needs to remind itself that every major attempt to reform the way in which teachers were managed and rewarded over the past 25 years has foundered. What looks good on the drawing board to civil service policy architects has a nasty habit of falling down once the builders get going . . .

But the teachers' organisations should not delude themselves that they hold all the High Court cards in the policy argument over introducing performance management into schools. Many concerned and sympathetic onlookers will ask how it can be that so many teachers appear glued to systems which manifestly do not work. Why do teachers appear to be arguing against the best opportunity they have had for years for significant pay increases and a real career structure? Is it really the case that involving teachers in assessing their own performance and career development is equivalent to establishing a force of management narks? Have teachers so little faith in their own professionalism? And if they have, should anyone else trust them either - let alone establish a General Teaching Council in which they will have the commanding voice?

The fact that the Green Paper proposals will almost certainly dominate all the conference agendas does not mean that there is any lack of other key common strands. The fact that workload is a hardy perennial does not mean that teachers' complaints are just rhetoric. The fact that an issue has become boringly predictable for journalists does not mean that it has gone away or doesn't matter. Many teachers indeed would rank excessive workload - and not just that which flows from torrential bureaucracy - as the most demoralising aspect of their work. They would identify it as the most potent influence on sagging recruitment and flagging retention.

The teaching profession is ageing and exhausted. The Government needs to listen carefully to what its representatives say in the next two weeks.

Maybe some of it can be dismissed as ritual moaning. But not all. The key trick the Government has to pull off is to discover how to douse the cynicism and reignite the idealism of a profession crucial to all our futures.

The dominating theme of the conferences lies in the sub-text of all the agendas. It is the long-term collapse of teachers' corporate self-confidence. In its attempts to rebuild it, the Government is well into injury time.

Peter Smith is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers

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