Heads choose to reject selection
The main theme of the conference, held in Newcastle upon Tyne, remained a defence of the comprehensive system which the union's leaders believe is being undermined by the Government's plans to allow schools to select more pupils. They also feel that some Opposition politicians with their controversial decisions about their children's schools have not helped.
But for a union which represents a large number of grammar and independent heads the leaders' line was not shared by all the audience. Marsha Elms, head of Kendrick girls' grammar in Reading, has written to SHA's president voicing unease at the tone of conference.
Mr Sutton said: "Most Tory ministers buy themselves (or rather their children) out of trouble, educationally speaking, while for some Labour leaders it is a cop out. I await with interest the publication entitled The Influence of Politician's Children on the Development of the English Educational System - subtitled Out of Harman's Way.
He went on to describe the attack on comprehensive schools as a "lie of which the late Dr Goebbels would have been proud".
John Dunford, SHA's president, picked up the theme: "What politicians are condemning is a caricature of comprehensive education, practised (if at all) by a tiny minority of schools. The truth comes not from politicians, nor from think tanks, nor from surveys of the general public, whose views are formed from the image of schools put across by these people, but from the parents who actually have children in schools."
He said national surveys show that more than 90 per cent of parents are satisfied with their children's education. Peter Downes introduced another survey (admittedly of more questionable statistical provenance) of parents at his school - Hinchingbrooke comprehensive in Huntingdon - which resulted in a unanimous thumbs down for selection.
Mr Downes has the dubious distinction of being head of the school John Major could have chosen for his children, if he had not opted for the private sector. His survey belied the Government's view that grammar schools were popular with parents, he said, adding that, if anything, the lower streams of selective schools can often underperform.
The comprehensive lobby had another advantage at the conference as many of SHA's grammar-school members were attending the Grammar Schools' Association conference in Birmingham.
Marsha Elms, who is also a member of the SHA council, said she had considered resigning over the selection issue, but has decided to stay on and fight for the voice of grammar schools on the council.
She said: "I am a head of a successful traditional grammar which allows girls to blossom and where they can excel without being criticised by their peers. I am not saying there should be a grammar school in every town, but there needs to be a diversity of schools to respond to the needs of a community."
While there was a fair amount of politician bashing led from the front, both Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, and David Blunkett, her opposite for Labour, were warmly received, with the Labour spokesman scoring slightly higher on the clapometer.
Mrs Shephard, whose mention of her White Paper to allow schools more selection earned her cries of "shame", took up two main issues. She announced a consultative document Equipping Young People for Working Life (see below). This is intended to increase links between school and work as part of the 14 -16 curriculum. The document suggested that a programme could include one day a week with an employer andor one day with a further education college.
Mrs Shephard also addressed changes to the inspection process. She said the chief inspector was to publish a consultation document and she had set down certain parameters: all schools should be inspected every six years, while others would be inspected more frequently; inspection resources will be targeted at poor schools; and after the report is published there would be a second meeting for parents with the registered inspector.
John Dunford said he would have preferred a more open-ended consultation but said he took heart in the Secretary of State's support for school self evaluation.
* SHA and the National Association of Head Teachers are to set up an information centre about state schools. The centre should be fully operational by the end of the year and will be based at the University of North London. Its function will be to provide information and promote state education.