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So long to SHA and thanks for all the fish;Conference;Secondary Heads Association

John Sutton's conference farewell was warmly received, but David Blunkett had less to offer, reports Frances Rafferty.

So goodbye to parents from hell, pupils whose very name triggers an NASUWT ballot, the serial callers to the problems hotline . . . and the vanishing fish.

John Sutton, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, was bidding farewell as leader of the union after 10 years to members at the annual conference last week in Birmingham.

He said he has shared many of their problems. A typical afternoon on the union's hotline has seen him advising members facing the sack; another whose school had burned down, and one asking how navel-piercing should be ruled upon.

And the vanishing fish? One head called to say fish were disappearing from the school's pond - then a teacher was caught selling them to the local fishmonger.

Mr Sutton was given a warm appreciation for his valedictory speech: Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett was also loudly clapped, before even opening his mouth. However, he had little to offer the secondary heads.

The Government is focusing its attention on primary education. The same weekend it had launched the new framework for literacy and Mr Blunkett announced 562 new literacy summer schools and the pilot numeracy summer school. This would help secondary teachers, he said, by ensuring all children had a sound grounding in the three Rs before they transferred.

But heads later said he did not answer their concerns. Mr Sutton had warned that the teacher recruitment crisis was already catastrophic. He said: "We are not now talking in the traditional terms of shortage subjects. History is 14 per cent down, geography 26 per cent, economics 47 per cent and home economics 46 per cent."

The Government's response to the situation, he said, was to phase teachers' pay so it fell below inflation, mount a recruitment campaign "starring octogenarian teachers whose main claim to fame was that they once taught Gary Lineker", and a few extra gongs on new year's day.

He said the Government's so-called 5.8 per cent increase in funding was a pipe dream for many schools, with LEAs using the money on other services previously cut to protect education.

Mr Blunkett further annoyed Mr Sutton by his off-the-cuff remarks about the play Shopping and Fucking. He slated the British Council for including the controversial work as part of a programme of cultural events representing "Cool Britannia" which is to tour abroad. His condemnation of the play's strong language, oral sex and buggery inevitably pushed the heads' concerns out of the headlines.

Bruce Douglas, SHA president, launched a challenge to the Government to end its stand-offishness towards the union, whose officers say they never see ministers. He said that in exchange for a modern, professional and accountable leadership, the Government should give heads "space". Mr Blunkett was also asked to "think the unthinkable" and pay secondary teachers more than primary ones.

But the heads are not arguing from a position of strength. If anything, Mr Blunkett wants to see primary heads further rewarded. Although he said he was happy to take on Mr Douglas's challenge, it may turn out to be a naive gesture on the part of the heads. Once the Government turns its attention from the primary sector to secondaries, heads may look back at the minor civil servants with fondness.

Mr Blunkett's comments on Shopping and Fucking had been in the context of flagging up Professor Bernard Crick's report, published this week, on introducing citizenship in schools (see below). Mr Blunkett said: "We don't want to shock all the time. We should be creating a society of civilised human beings by teaching democracy, citizenship and moral and spiritual values."

It was this theme that then embroiled Professor Michael Barber, head of the Department for Education and Employment's standards unit, into controversy. Professor Barber said that while Christianity established ethical codes for the past 2000 years, it has now become a minority interest, and teachers will have to play a major role in inculcating moral and ethical values in their pupils.

Quoting the philosopher Peter Singer, he asked: "In the absence of God and Marx, what are we to do?" A quick flip to his reference at the end of the speech seemed to provide the answer: read Professor Michael Barber's books.

When reporters attempted to question Professor Barber further, he ran away and hid. John Sutton, who delivered tea and biscuits to his bolt hole, said Professor Barber had been told by his "political masters" to avoid talking to the press.

The speakers most enjoyed by SHA members were Professor Tim Brighouse, chief education officer of Birmingham, and management guru Charles Handy, who spoke on leadership. The former's Tommy Cooper-style prestidigitation and Professor Handy's polished patter yielded the inspiration and amusement the politicians failed to provide.

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