Easter grades

12th April 1996 at 01:00
It was a bit of an anti-climax, really, as Easter conference seasons go. No serious strike calls, no shrieking Trots, no disgraceful mob scenes on Bank Holiday television. The Education and Employment Secretary attended a National Union of Teachers conference after a l6-year stand-off and emerged unharmed but unamused. Activists scattered to Torquay, Cardiff or Glasgow to get a load of stress off their chests. Next week, with luck, they will feel all the better for it and turn their attention back to the children.

So who had a good Easter, judged - for the sake of argument - on a scale of one to seven? The grades, as any experienced inspector will tell you, tend to cluster around the middle, but still have their uses as performance indicators.

Gillian Shephard is just one of those stuck in the middle. On the plus side her usual steady, sure-footed performance, but also the strength of character it must have taken to accept the NUT's grudging and eminently refusable invitation to Easter Saturday in Cardiff. She was offered 20 minutes of the delegates' time, no chance to answer questions, and left in no doubt that president Carole Regan believed that the slot could have been more constructively devoted to democratic debate.

Added to that was the knowledge that both Tory press and Cabinet heavyweights were gunning for her sensible approach to school improvement. A good relationship with teachers and a steady hand on the tests and tables were no longer enough. With election hysteria mounting and education fingered, the siren cries for more selection, more vouchers, more teacher-bashing, were screeching around her. Picking her way fastidiously between them and the relatively muted T-shirts Against Cuts, Mrs Shephard ducked the sort of confrontation that might have won her headlines and political points. Her speech was carefully dull, reserving her more abrasive pensees d'escalier for the press conference. A satisfactory performance which will do little to advance her. A safe 4.

David Blunkett had a rather better weekend, performing well to warmer receptions than his opposite number. His 10-point deal for teachers, summarised opposite, mixes good news with what some will regard as bad, but adds up to a positive package. His other idea, for tackling the huge backlog of school repairs, was more of a breakthrough. Unlike the Government's private finance schemes, his proposals for channelling maintenance money and economy savings into repayments, could revolutionise the school repair cycle.

Since LEAs and school governors have always put teachers' jobs before window frames, repair bills for 20 years or more have been tackled in tiny annual budget bites which have usually made the final total far higher than it should have been with good husbandry. But if Hambros and friends will cough up for a sound new roof in the first place, tile repairs over the next 10 years will be very much lower. If Mr Blunkett has done his sums right. He merits at least a 3.

Mr one-to-seven himself, Chris Woodhead, didn't appear at the conferences in person, or even occupy such a vicariously starring role as he apparently expected. He got his retaliation in first with newspaper articles and television appearances, but in the event the role of the Office for Standards in Education and its leader did not dominate events.

At the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the moderate members did pass a polite resolution asking if OFSTED could please be abolished, but inspection came well behind violence as a headline-hitting issue. The NUT, of course, was so preoccupied with internal democracy, gay rights and selection, that its OFSTED-phobic item nearly got squeezed off the agenda. As we go to press it remains to the combative Nigel de Gruchy to give OFSTED the attention it deserves at the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers' Glasgow gathering. So far, although Mr Woodhead has given his usual crisp and effective media performance - a sound grade 3 - he might just as well have gone rock-climbing.

NUT leader Doug McAvoy is another man who must surely have longed for a kinder weekend elsewhere - indeed it is difficult to believe that any teachers' union leader wouldn't rather make straight for Eurostar then spend the best part of a week striving to shepherd an unruly flock roughly in the same direction. But that's what they're paid for, and at least the rest can comfort themselves that they haven't got Doug's far-Left fringe to torment them.

Mr McAvoy utterly failed to persuade his conference to vote itself out of power by giving one-member-one-vote rights to the wider membership. But that won't make any difference to his inclination, and duty, to ballot on industrial action and whatever else his sympathetic executive decrees. Given the nature of his intake, failure is relative and Doug McAvoy rates at least a brave 5.

No reports to the head for excellence or failure? Well, that's the way life goes.

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