In the grip of the left

12th April 1996 at 01:00
The teacher unions are gearing up to tackle the next government. Having suffered the effects of the Conservatives' industrial relations legislation and cuts in school funding, they would prefer Labour to be in power. But they are opposed to what they see as anti-teacher proposals put forward by David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, and Helen Liddell, his opposite number in Scotland. The fingering of ineffective teachers especially rankles, and several of the proposals may well entail extra administrative burdens on top of a workload already deemed intolerable.

To wean the opposition away from an agenda developed in response to supposed public concern about educational standards and the shortcomings of some schools, teacher leaders have to win the support of parents and the wider community. For that reason the Easter season of union conferences is important. As with the party conferences in the autumn, television exposes strengths and weaknesses. Divisions are highlighted, dissent and demonstrations seize centre stage. It is a time for holding breath and crossing fingers.

This year as last the conference of the National Union of Teachers (pages 5-8) has ill served the cause of those it purports to represent and tens of thousands beyond its ranks. Delegates behaved tolerably well to visiting politicians, unlike last year. But the conference again demonstrated an inability to represent the views of the majority of members when the left led a successful revolt against long overdue reforms. The echoes in the debates and the effect on the outside world recall exactly the problems faced by Labour during the years when it proved itself unfit to govern.

When a major union betrays its members, politicians anxious to make capital out of taking a tough stand on education attitudes and performance see the green light. That applies to Labour as much as the Conservatives. More than a decade ago the Educational Institute of Scotland had to take on and defeat a persistently disruptive left-wing element. Having done so, it reformed its constitution to ensure that at every level decisions do not conflict with members' opinions. But the NUT remains in the grip of the wrong people.

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