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Talking about the F-word

Frances Rafferty previews next week's annual meeting of the NAHT. The National Association of Head Teachers is proposing its own three-Rs for its annual conference in Harrogate next week: reform, revolution and renaissance.

Most heads have probably had enough of reform - particularly Brian Norbury of Sefton who hopes to propose a period of stability in education to the Secretary of State. In turn, Mrs Shephard will be hoping that the union which famously jeered and booed her hapless predecessor two years ago will not be quite so revolting.

And renaissance? Could this be an oblique reference to the NAHT's internal reorganisation following a critical report by consultants Coopers and Lybrand? No doubt George Varnava, the incoming president, will elucidate in his speech opening the public sessions of conference on Wednesday morning.

But the F-word funding, lack of it and how to go about it in the future, is expected to be the conference's most contentious issue. Chris Thatcher, head of Potters Green primary school, Coventry, says that class size - and most other issues -follow on from funding.

"Heads all agree that it is insufficient and are angry that the Government did not fund the pay award recommended by the review body. What will cause more debate is how to move to a more equitable situation. At present we have winners and losers and not everyone will benefit from a move towards a national funding formula."

Martin Saunders, of NAHT's Stoke-on-Trent division, will be calling the Government's failure to fund the pay rise a "national disgrace". He says that he will argue that Standard Spending Assessment is not the best way of funding schools, especially with the huge differences it throws up between regions. "Colleagues in the south-east who fare relatively better, because of area cost adjustment, may not be so keen to hear what I have to say."

Gillian Shephard, due to speak on the last day of conference, is not expected to have more to add on funding than the so-called "jam tomorrow" speech she made at the Secondary Heads Association conference.

And while she can expect a warmer welcome than John Patten received two years ago, she will find continuing opposition to many of the Government's reforms.

Eric Spear, a national council member from Kent, said: "The Government may think that the Dearing review has solved all the problems over the curriculum but there is a wide body of thought which finds the tests unnecessary and unuseful."

Ros Gait, head of Blaise county primary school, Bristol, is to propose a motion that national tests are "fundamentally flawed" and should be replaced with financial support for moderated teacher assessment. She is expected to tell delegates, many of whom will arrive at conference fresh from carrying them out, that this year's tests have added nothing to excellent primary practice and nothing to children's understanding.

Other delegates are expected to voice concern about the effect that the stress of the curriculum exams is having on children.

George Varnava is expected to take Mrs Shephard to task on funding, league tables and the narrow perspective of the national curriculum. He will also call for OFSTED to earmark part of its inspection costs towards paying for one or more recommendations in its report.

Class size, the main issue at the Easter teacher conferences, is also on the agenda. Industrial action has been threatened and conference can expect to hear its leadership advise a tough line against teachers who take part.

David Hart, general secretary, is thought not to favour children being excluded from lessons on a rota basis - it is expected he will advise members to tell teachers they are in breach of their contracts if they refuse to take classes they believe are too big.

Delegates are also expected to highlight conflicts between heads and governing bodies. Ian Bruce will tell conference that half the workload of regional officers in the south-west region is taken up by such disputes.

It has been a turbulent year for the union. A Coopers and Lybrand report on its internal organisation has led to changes at headquarters and the appointment of more regional officers. It has also led to internal debate on the role of conference as a policy-making body and its relation to national council. Talk in the Harrogate bars and tearooms is expected to focus on these issues.

The choice of conference speakers has also puzzled delegates and also David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman.

Tony Benn MP, the left-wing maverick, may not represent Labour's official policy on education but he could prove to be more entertaining. Also speaking are Sir Peter Newsam, former director of London University's Institute of Education, and Stuart Maclure, former editor of The TES.

* The association has criticised the Teachers' Pension Agency for the dramatic increase in the number of refusals to grant applications for retirement over ill health. David Hart said: "There has to be a strong suspicion that government intervention, designed to keep down public expenditure, is an important factor.

"Such refusals deprive NAHT members the opportunity to restore their health and do a disservice to the schools which these members run."

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