Easter tests

28th March 1997 at 00:00
Will it be shopping lists or solidarity? Is it to be the usual cacophony of protest, demands and complaint or a more hopeful search for a new mood of collaboration? The teacher union conferences this Easter weekend fall at a critical point in the run-up to the General Election, fortuitously timed to make their mark on the campaign for good or ill, in a way that will be harder to brush aside than the usual rent-a-quote or rent-a-mob routines.

So far as the Education Secretary and her minders are concerned, it is plain that teachers are regarded as a complete irrelevance to the main business of brainwashing the electorate on matters educational. After rejecting an invitation to genteel Harrogate from the National Union of Teachers, Gillian Shephard went on to offend the Association of Teachers and Lecturers by pulling out of their date at short notice.

According to her substitute, Eric Forth, it was because she was "working on a secret weapon," although this later turned out to be the Conservative Central Office banana skin of the day, when her plans to test 14-year-olds until the pips squeaked were sidelined by Michael Heseltine's attack on Labour and the unions. She must have wished she was in Cardiff.

Instead, the field was left clear for Don Foster to expound the Liberal Democrats' ever-popular plans for spending, and for Labour's shadow spokesman David Blunkett to get on with the crucial task of building a working relationship with teachers that will stand the test of power.

That is going to demand faith and commitment from all key players, mutual recognition of irreducible concerns and readiness to consult. If a Labour Government is elected, Gordon Brown's promised spending freeze will make it hard to respond to demands for smaller classes and greater investment in schools in the first 100 days, or even the first two years, which teachers predictably find hard to accept. Some expectations are modest: "Cash and a little understanding," was the way one Sheffield head put it last week. One issue high on every conference agenda - pupil behaviour and discipline - is a critical concern demanding joint action.

For what is crucial is a new spirit and commitment from a new ministerial team to wider involvement and consultation. After 18 years of disengagement and deprofessionalisation, what teachers want above all else is an end to ostracism and an empowering seat at the table to decide early priorities. As Peter Smith of the ATL says in our News Focus on the unions on page 11, the biggest political failure of those years has been to fritter away the idealism of teachers. They want to be trusted again.

Leaving aside the question of whether they in turn are ready to trust Labour - and recent opinion polls suggest that they will in spite of a deep disaffection for recent political rhetoric - it will be equally important for teachers to take a lead on standards and pupil performance, as Peter Smith again reminded the ATL conference. Bitterness about scapegoating was understandable, but if that led to curling up in a ball like a hedgehog, they mustn't be surprised to be ignored.

What hedgehogging could mean in effect would be more prolonged moaning about testing, league tables and pensions, at the expense of engagement in the quality debate. In the event, Blunkett's speech on teacher training was almost as warmly received in Cardiff as his promise of closer consultation, and there is every sign that the NUT's leaders too want to get down to the professional issues with him, though rank-and-file behaviour this Easter is as ever unpredictable. Blunkett will no doubt want to talk about literacy, numeracy and Excellence for Everyone. They have the conduct of HMCI and the hounding of Calderdale on the agenda but, more positively, members are also keen to discuss the lessons of their school self-evaluation projects.

Next week, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers will be ready with their own implacable shopping list. They may find David Blunkett a tougher proposition than most of those that they do business with, but it will be in everyone's interests for the Easter conference season to end in professional accord, rather than punch-up headlines.

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