The Tories' grammar school U-turn has stirred up the ranks. But it is just part of a wider move to transform the party's education policies. William Stewart reports.
"I have to say the Conservative party is ahead of others in thinking about the future of the teaching profession."
Words you might expect to hear from David Cameron, not the leader of what is seen as the most militant and left-wing of Britain's teaching unions.
But when Steve Sinnott, the National Union of Teachers' general secretary, said that in his speech to the union's annual conference in Harrogate last month he was not joking.
The Tories are holding out an olive branch to teachers and, in some quarters at least, they are being listened to seriously.
The party gained publicity for its education policies last week when David Willets, shadow education spokesman, criticised grammar schools and said his party would not expand them.
His comments shocked several backbench and a few frontbench Tory MPs, who complained to the newspapers that they had not been informed of the "surprise U-turn".
It was clear they had not been paying attention to the changes that have occurred under the Cameron regime.
His predecessor, Michael Howard, may have promised in the 2005 general election that the Conservatives would allow any school that so wished to use selective admission, prompting suggestions there could be a grammar in every town. But as early as October 2005, George Osborne, Mr Cameron's right-hand man, was saying that grammar schools had no role in the future leader's plans.
Mr Cameron confirmed this three days after taking the helm that December, saying: "There will be no return to the 11-plus." The comment provoked much media debate. He mentioned it again in his first party conference speech as leader last October, in which he cautioned against obsessing "about a handful more grammar schools".
At the same event, Mr Willetts explained that grammar schools could no longer be seen as genuinely meritocratic because they took less than their fair share of deprived pupils.
The criticism of grammar schools has been welcomed by the NUT. But even without this there has been plenty of positive interest recently from the biggest classroom union, and from the National Association of Head Teachers, in the Tories' education policies.
The Conservatives' public policy review group published an interim report last autumn titled The Wellbeing of the Nation. It calls for a "new partnership with the professions" and envisages a relationship with teachers in which "politics have been removed from classroom" and they are given greater autonomy and self-regulation.
The authors, Baroness Pauline Perry and Stephen Dorrell MP, continue in a manner guaranteed to impress teachers disenchanted with the Blair approach.
"A plethora of targets, tests, league tables, inspections and form-filling have resulted in teachers spending far too much of their time on managing the regulators than on their prime task of teaching their pupils," they write. "The sense of pride in their work has been diminished by the loss of public trust in their professionalism, and this in turn has lowered morale and motivation."
They pledge to look at reforming the inspection system, quoting a report describing Ofsted's methodology as "highly flawed and dysfunctional".
David Willetts took a similar stance in a speech in February on "respecting professionals". "Successive governments have failed to hear the voice of the teacher and to learn from them as we develop our policies," he said.
"As part of our new settlement we have to be clear that just as we expect the highest standards from teachers so teachers must be able to expect attention to their concerns."
The NUT's reaction to these overtures should not come as a complete surprise. Unlike others in the TUC, the union has never affiliated to the Labour Party. And while vociferous left-wing delegates can take up more than their fair share of conference time, the union has always jealously guarded its political independence.
However, Mr Sinnott admitted that his praise for the Conservatives'
attitude to teachers seemed ironic when viewed against the party's record in the Eighties.
"It was the Conservatives' education reform act which triggered excessive demands on teachers and schools," he said. "But we shouldn't ignore a sinner who repents."
John Bangs, the NUT's head of education, says the union is interested in Mr Willetts' "exciting" suggestion that the General Teaching Council should be merged with the Teacher Development Agency and National College of School Leadership. He believes the plan could place the GTC at the centre of a network of teaching unions rather than be the rival he argues Labour conceived it as.
Others are less willing to forgive. Mary Bousted, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' general secretary, said: "Many teachers'
perceptions (of the Conservatives) in 1997 were of a party that frankly didn't care about state education. I greet their new proposals with caution and scepticism."
There is precious little detail. But Mr Bangs sees this as an advantage for those seeking to influence a possible future government. Asked how he thought teacher autonomy would work under the Tories, he replied: "One of the exciting things is that they don't yet know themselves."
Much of the most teacher-friendly material originates from the public policy review group and Baroness Perry, a former chief inspector of schools and its joint chair. But while her group is making the Tories look progressive, the party's front bench has not given any commitment to adopting its recommendations as policy.
Indeed, they are understood to have already rejected one of its early ideas - relaxing school catchment areas - fearing it would lead to lotteries or banded admissions.
The differences are highlighted in attitudes to assessment. While Baroness Perry has called for a "much lighter regime of external testing", Nick Gibb, shadow schools minister, has rejected ruling out national tests for every child.
Conservative willingness to go beyond Labour in support for city academies will also disappoint the NUT and the NASUWT. Indeed, the party's most radical proposal could be its plan, announced by Mr Willetts last week, to drop the requirement for academy sponsors to contribute pound;2million and allow them to sign multiple contracts.
"We could contract with an educational charity or company as an academy to run say 10 or 20 schools," he said.
Mr Willetts also said he would require some sponsors to sign contracts saying their academies would be run "traditionally" with whole-class teaching, setting and streaming and a "robust" discipline policy. A five-year research project would address the scheme's validity.
But the NUT is focusing on the positives, nurturing them in the hope that if the Tories do win power they will blossom. It is hoping its praise will boost the new Conservative attitude to teachers.
Others claim it is the only approach open to a union cast into the darkness by the current administration. "It is hilarious that the most left-wing of unions is making love to the Tories because they are the only ones who will talk to them," said a senior figure in a rival union.
It is just possible that the tactic could have a much wider effect on education. "This is a twin-pronged approach," said Mr Bangs. "This is saying to Brown, 'Look at the Tories and catch up'."
CONSERVATIVE EDUCATION POLICIES SINCE 2005 ELECTION
Continuing Labour's policy of blocking an increase in grammar schools
Increasing the number of academies by removing the need for sponsors to contribute pound;2 million and allowing them to set up several using a single contract
More setting and streaming
AS-levels no longer to be a component of A-levels
Some academy contracts to require "traditional" teaching and discipline
Synthetic phonics to become the norm in all primaries
State school heads given the right to offer any exam they and parents consider worthwhile, such as IGCSEs
Merging the General Teaching Council, Teacher Development Agency and National College for School Leadership
A new research-based professional structure for teachers to "protect them from fads and fashions"
Allowing heads to buy education for disruptive and excluded pupils from the private and voluntary sectors
Consultation on making history and modern foreign languages compulsory until the age of 16
Review of the roles of Ofsted, exam boards and Qualifications and Curriculum Authority
Allowing schools to use any admissions criteria they prefer, including selection Introducing "turnaround schools" for the most difficult pupils
Pupil passports, a voucher-type scheme that could allow parents to send children to cheap private schools
A "free schools" policy, effectively abolishing the role of local authorities in education