Six search for a change at the top

As the Easter conference season begins, Maureen O'Connor talks to teachers' union leaders about the consequences of a Labour poll victory.

The prospect of a Labour victory at the General Election is provoking only cautious rejoicing among the teacher unions, but rejoicing none the less. As the conference season gets under way this weekend, all the unions are hoping for changes in policy from an incoming government which will meet their most pressing concerns.

The unions have no illusions that a Labour secretary of state is going to jump into bed with them. Even beer and sandwiches are off. But all are hoping for a change of attitude at the top. As Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, puts it, the first 100 days will be critical if the country is to achieve the sort of cultural shift needed to raise standards to something like Taiwanese levels.

"All the talk about challenge, and focus and rigour is fine, but if you continue the current level of scapegoating, it is self-defeating. Support for teachers is as important as extra money," Mr Smith says.

Most of the conference debates between now and the General Election will focus on specific issues such as class size, inspection and indiscipline, but underlying them all are three major dissatisfactions: the conviction that teachers are over-worked, under-valued, and the whole system is creaking for lack of investment.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, warns any new government that teacher morale is now so fragile that it might crack if there is any more upheaval. "Of course a new government will get to work on its manifesto commitments, but the profession would groan universally if it were to face another round of change and disruption. Whoever takes office must work with the grain of the profession. The recent row over early retirement has been bruising."

The top priority for a new government, according to Doug McAvoy, the National Union of Teachers' general secretary, is to get a dialogue going again with the profession. Teachers, he says, have been deeply angered by the fact that their views have not been taken into account by so many Conservative secretaries of state.

"I think that if the profession gets the feeling that it is going to be taken back into a positive and productive relationship, then it will be patient. The new government will buy itself some time."

Peter Smith would like to see a Labour government set up an early summit meeting of key players, including the unions, to establish priorities. But he accepts that it is not going to have money "to spray around".

He believes that the biggest political failure of the past 18 years has been to fritter away the idealism of teachers. "The overwhelming majority would respond positively to being trusted again," he says.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, is waiting to hear Tony Blair commit himself to the sort of constructive social dialogue which the TUC has proposed. His union, he says, is just as interested as the Labour party in improving standards, and is not in the business of defending incompetent teachers.

But standards depend on recruiting good people, supporting them and paying them properly, he says, with a top rate significantly higher than the Pounds 22,000 per annum to which the classroom teacher can currently aspire. In the meantime, he thinks, conditions of service could be significantly improved by cutting down on the mountain of paperwork which is causing so much stress and ill-health.

He offers a new government more than 100 days to show its mettle. But his members, he thinks, will not want to wait much more than a year to see some significant progress on the issue of workload. This, he says, is not an expensive issue to solve. If there is no progress "things could get hairy".

David Hart, of the NAHT, takes the toughest line on funding and resources. Some LEAs are in deep trouble and making real cuts, he says, and pay and conditions problems are a potential volcano. Good graduates will become increasingly difficult to recruit as the economy improves, and vacancies for heads and deputies are already proving hard to fill.

"We will work constructively with the Pay Review Body but we are dismayed when their recommendations are not fully funded or are phased in," Mr Hart says.

Class size will be high on the agenda at the NUT conference this coming weekend and worries all the unions. It is an issue which has obvious financial implications for an incoming government and one which has already sparked industrial action by NUT members in West Yorkshire.

The unions are at one in their concern over rising class sizes. The Professional Association of Teachers has asked the Pay Review Body to make it part of headteachers' conditions of service that they should not fix classes above 30. John Andrews, the association's general secretary, said: "We would also like to see some definitive research on the effect of class size on standards. At present people are taking polarised positions without any firm evidence either way."

The NASUWT is much further out on a limb with its high-profile campaign against indiscipline. Its conference will celebrate its "victories" against disruptive children at The Ridings, Manton Junior, Glaisdale and Hebburn schools. It will be used to launch a sustained attack on the "Warnock" principle of integration of children with special needs into mainstream schools.

Nigel de Gruchy is adamant that seriously disturbed children are better off in separate units or special schools. His members should not be asked to cope with them, he says.

The NUT stands alone in its opposition to the Pay Review Body which the other unions now largely accept. Doug McAvoy says his members still want a return to proper negotiations over pay and conditions and an end to a system which breaches international labour law. "The present system is dangerous for teachers. We have already seen changes to the pay structure introduced without union support."

The prospect of a General Teaching Council gets a generally warm welcome from all the unions, with the proviso that it is not simply a means of disciplining poor teachers.

As John Sutton, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, puts it, it is not yet entirely clear what sort of GTC the profession is going to get. What is needed, suggests Peter Smith, is a standing forum with proper representation for teachers and others with an interest, like industry and parents, to take the debate on priorities forward.

If a Tony Blair government is wary of seeming to be too close to the unions, there is not much sign that any of the teacher unions are too anxious to cuddle up to him. Fire and brimstone are never far from the surface in Nigel de Gruchy's public pronouncements and the last year has shown that the NASUWT can get its members out over specific issues such as indiscipline with devastating effect.

The NUT is still trying to live down the militant jostling of David Blunkett which so embarrassed it in 1995. Doug McAvoy is confident that there will be no repeat performance. The Easter conference, he says, is a fairer reflection of the membership's views. "The militants have realised that they can't argue that taking action is the solution for everything. They are aware that if you have a ballot you have to take people with you." But the NUT members' ballot for resolutions reveals overwhelming concern on issues of class size, under-funding, workload and behavioural problems, all of which have financial implications. The scope for serious dissatisfaction, and not just on the far Left, if they are not tackled is clear.

The unions know that meeting expectations is not going to be easy for a new Labour government. But the failure to do so, Peter Smith thinks, could be catastrophic.

"The challenge to an incoming government is to change attitudes. But if Blair comes to be seen as having indulged in pre-election duplicity, then teacher cynicism will become ossified," he says. "The next secretary of state could preside over a fin de sicle collapse or a Millennial revival.

"We have one last chance to get it right."


Membership figures for the four class-teacher unions are highly controversial and open to misinterpretation because of the inclusion of retired and student members, and because the NUT does not recruit in Scotland or Northern Ireland. These are the latest figures (December 1995) for contributing members issued by the four: Association of Teachers and Lecturers...............130,339 Professional Association of Teachers................42,595 National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers... .157,146 National Union of Teachers ................ 192,009

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