Josephine Gardiner sees NASUWT hearts and minds evade the Secretary of State
At the 11th hour, just before Gillian Shephard was due on stage to deliver the grand finale, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers annual conference in Glasgow looked in danger of catching fire.
Dave Wilkinson, a delegate from Derby, possibly emboldened by that morning's news of the Government's humiliation at the South-east Staffordshire by-election, put forward an amendment calling for strike action over cover for absent colleagues. It was, as another delegate said, "a macho speech".
Referring to the unbroken procession of previous speakers deploring classroom conditions and unruly pupils, he asked: "What do these ritual condemnations really mean? We constantly reiterate existing policy, with unanimous votes and little dissent . . . what does that realistically do to advance the interests of members?" The union, said Mr Wilkinson, gave onlookers the impression that members were just "whingeing vessels of hot air, continually passing anodyne messages of complaint", and he went on to compare his audience with a weak teacher pleading with pupils to stop throwing missiles.
The NASUWT had nothing to fear, he argued, "from a Government in its final death throes".
While he was speaking, the posse of journalists who had dismissed the debate on cover as lacking in drama came racing back into the conference hall, only to be disappointed by the voice of caution from the executive's Margaret Morgan, asking if the climate had changed since calls for action on class size last year were defeated. "The NASUWT is the mature teaching union," she reminded everyone, and Mr Wilkinson's amendment was resoundingly defeated.
But the delegates were no kinder to the beleaguered Mrs Shephard, who appeared a few minutes later dressed in the same pale blue suit she wore to the National Union of Teachers conference. In one sense, the NASUWT annual conference offers a dramatic contrast with the NUT's - there are no phalanxes of Socialist Workers Party leafleteers, no in-your-face T-shirts, no fevered factional confabs outside the auditorium (delegates tend diligently to attend every debate), no barracking of political speakers. The proceedings are good-humoured, the voting frequently unanimous. Delegates prefer to highlight workplace issues and demonstrate their resentment through expressions of cynicism about politicians and the press.
Mrs Shephard's speech, delivered without jokes or any attempt to charm her audience, announced new legislation to force parents to take more responsibility for their disruptive or truanting children. This might have been expected to earn her some applause, since it tackled most of the problems (apart from the Office for Standards in Education) that had been dominating the debates. However, it was received with a clap so faint as to be barely polite, and the questions that followed were unremittingly antagonistic. After a question on nursery vouchers, she replied plaintively that she found it "disappointing that in a forum like this there should have been more defence of institutions than defence of children and parents". This elicited the first loud boos of the week.
This was followed by a public buffeting at the hands of general secretary Nigel de Gruchy, who told her he understood that she was at the mercy of "the intellectual hooligans at the Number 10 Policy Unit" and rebutted a suggestion in her speech that schools had abused their right to exclude pupils in the past: "It's all very well you saying that we can't leave these children in limbo, but I deal with the teachers left in hell." Mr de Gruchy also suggested mischievously that in view of the result of the Staffordshire by-election, her colleagues might soon like to "avail themselves of Mr Blunkett's kind offer of coming into the profession if they are over 50".
Mrs Shephard told a press conference afterwards that she had come to Glasgow with the intention of updating members on the Government's school security strategy in the wake of Dunblane, announcing legislation on discipline, and "laying it on the line about standards and inspections by making it clear that the profession doesn't help itself by opposing OFSTED or giving the impression that it is opposed."
On inspections, the NASUWT now appears less confrontational than either the NUT, which explicitly resolved to take industrial action if jobs are threatened by the 1-7 grading system, or the "moderate" ATL, which voted to abolish OFSTED. The NASUWT has voted to "resist" the grading of teachers by inspectors and has demanded a tightening of the way inspectors are vetted for the job and for greater powers for teachers to challenge the conclusions of "inappropriately qualified" inspectors. Two other OFSTED motions, calling for the resignation of Chris Woodhead and condemning the "politicisation" of the inspectorate, never made it to the top of the agenda.
It remains unclear as yet what form the "resistance" might take. A speaker for the executive said that he would "advocate a total boycott of OFSTED if I was speaking from the heart, but our members expect their representatives to use their heads when planning strategy". He said however that members could expect unquestioning support from the union if they are "victimised" by inspectors and that the union would impeach inspectors to justify their conclusions at disciplinary hearings. Widespread industrial action has not been ruled out; if sackings dramatically increase, "the situation could take on national dimensions and the executive could then ballot for national action".
The debate on inspection was derailed at one point by a tit-for-tat amendment from Wolverhampton, calling for a grading system for headteachers on the basis that "if they want a grading system let us have one and see how you like it". Otherwise, speakers on OFSTED were frequently anxious to reassure the assembled media that they did not wish to defend incompetent teachers, pointing out that teaching colleagues as well as pupils are their victims.
What particularly riles this union about OFSTED is the idea of being judged by people who have not taught for decades or who have become advisers or inspectors because they could not cut the mustard at the chalkface.
David Blunkett received a warmer reception than Mrs Shephard, but it was not ecstatic. The only standing ovation at this conference was reserved for Hazel Spence Young, the teacher who received record damages recently for injuries inflicted by a pupil. Teachers speaking outside the conference hall seemed most pleased by the idea of sabbaticals, though several wondered bitterly whether, having tasted the delights of secondment to industry, they would ever come back to the classroom. The prospect of a Dad's Army - a flood of burnt-out businessmen trying to tackle the stresses of classroom life - met with more scepticism, including that of Nigel de Gruchy.
Ann Allen, a special needs teacher from North Shields, was typical. She welcomed sabbaticals, but wondered, like Tory education minister James Paice, who would pay for them. She welcomed Mr Blunkett's plan to reform the local management funding formula, but a laptop for every child? "It's a terrible idea - I can see myself running around desperately trying to fix pupils' equipment while others vanish into the Internet."
Of the political speakers, Don foster received the most applause even though he had fewest concrete proposals. Perhaps this was because he managed to give the impression that he was on the teachers' side.