A speech destined to cause dismay;Opinion

9th October 1998 at 01:00
Doug McAvoy wonders why the Government spent conference week talking the language of failure

PARTY conferences are hot-house affairs. Conferences of parties in power have an extra spice. Governments try to create a reality for the media which is then expected to transmit key messages to the wider world. Audiences are defined and their relevant weight and importance judged. The maximum advantage in media terms is assessed.

None of these characteristics is unique to the Labour party in conference; nor are such characteristics inherently wrong. A party must project itself and where better than at its annual conference with the world's media camped on the doorstep.

Yet, sometimes, the enormous enthusiasm to gain maximum party advantage subordinates all judgments. Teachers must wonder whether Tony Blair, despite his commitment to education, actually gives enough thought to the people responsible for turning his aims into reality. The dress rehearsal for his party conference speech took place a week before in New York. Describing the "Third Way", he pointed to the importance of addressing "certain strong interests in the education system". "We'll fight you all the way," he said. Hardly the language of partnership with teachers - or with anyone else for that matter.

However, in a powerful conference speech, Mr Blair developed his theme. He pointed to "pound;19 billion extra spending", but said "there are too few good state schools; too much tolerance of mediocrity and too little pursuit of excellence". Not a single line praising the commitment and quality of teachers' work.

In the trade this is known as balance. Additional resources cannot be given simply because they are needed to ensure that an already good job can be done better. Failure has to be highlighted in order to throw in sharp relief the success extra resources will bring.

Running alongside the Prime Minister's main theme was David Blunkett's criticism of the "miserable sods" who "sneer at" government initiatives; a criticism made at a fringe meeting.

If the phrase was meant lightly, no attempt was made to correct the spin put on it by a number of newspapers. The phrase simply stood as another Government criticism of what it perceives as an inert and whingeing profession.

In contrast, I regularly receive letters from our members describing their work. One, from a primary teacher, describes a typical day. Work begins at 7.30am. In her role as an ICT co-ordinator, she starts by sorting out computer problems. Photocopying comes next, then writing a swimming list. As a key stage 2 co-ordinator as well, liaison then takes place with other staff. After a quick word with the head, teaching begins.

The swimming list is finished at lunch-time and permission notes written. A cup of tea is snatched during some marking. Teaching in the afternoon is followed by a meeting with the year group team.

Then work on the National Literacy Strategy follows. Preparation takes place in the evening. It is a typical day. She finishes her letter thus: "I am not a slacker, I am a dedicated teacher, but my dedication is now being abused."

The letter reflects the views of most teachers. It is a challenge for the National Union of Teachers. It is certainly a challenge for the Government - but a challenge which, in a speech dotted with challenges, the Prime Minister could not recognise. David Blunkett, in his speech, urged the conference to join him in recognising and applauding the teaching profession.

It was a speech which highlighted the additional resources he had won for schools and the half-billion pounds for tackling social exclusion. He looked forward to the Green Paper. In short, it was a speech which, on its own, deserved the applause it received.

Unfortunately, it was too late. It was received in the context of the Prime Minister's earlier remarks. The two speeches were aimed at different audiences. It was a twin-track approach targeted at securing maximum party advantage; an approach, however, without thought for the consequences.

It is impossible to square recognition of the "huge contribution" made by teachers with the phrase, "too few good state schools". Dismay and cynicism are a much more likely response from teachers than a sophisticated appreciation of the Government's need to achieve the perfect message.

Why does it matter? It matters because the Government still appears not to understand that it has a pivotal role in raising teacher morale. Party advantage appears to override, at least at conference, the need to establish a real partnership with teachers.

If the opportunity offered by the Green Paper is to be taken, then party advantage has to be put aside. Teachers' support for whatever comes out of the Green Paper is vital. It is every teacher's ambition to receive "the status, the opportunity and the pay they deserve and need to do the job", as David Blunkett put it.

Yet that opportunity will be missed if the Green Paper is constructed and sold according to the imperatives of this year's Labour conference.

Doug McAvoy is general secretary of the National Union of Teachers

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