Hecklers voiced the anger of many

28th April 2000 at 01:00
THEY CAME not to praise her but to bury her - or at least drown her out. Or perhaps to ignore her. The left-wing of the National Union of Teachers couldn't quite decide. Either way, they weren't going to listen.

But was Estelle Morris listening either? Her first speech to conference as a minister was hardly constructive dialogue. She looked nervous enough, as she waited to take the platform. She had been billed as opening the afternoon session; one presumed the earlier wrangle over the union's annual report was protracted to give time for delegates to get into the hall so they could walk out again.

Which 250 of them did as soon as she took the stand. "If she won't listen to us, why should we listen to her," was the message. Gathered in the foyer, they let out an almighty cheer, clearly heard in the auditorium.

Others stayed to heckle. As the minister justified performance pay, they yelled: "Pay us all - pound;2,000 for all teachers." One wit won applause for:

"Give us your salary - and your holidays". (MPs' vacations make teachers' look like tea breaks.) One teacher from her former Midlands school, Sidney Stringer held up the placard "Remember Coventry". The minister ploughed on stiffly, never engaging the hecklers - perhaps wisely, though one suspected Education Secretary David Blunkett would have had a ready-made put-down to win applause from moderates and make the next dy's headlines.

What would they have heard had they listened? Not much new. Performance pay: an opportunity not a threat, reward those who stay in the classroom.

The more polite delegates told the hecklers to shut up. But it's a mistake to think only the Left objects. This was an angry audience that thinks the Government has ridden roughshod over teachers. Moderates and militants alike found parts of her speech genuinely insulting.

Finally, Ms Morris drifted into a familiar litany of Labour's achievements in power - ending, oddly, with its proud record on music lessons. It was a weirdly anti-climactic conclusion. Delegates were now silent: bored into submission.

And then came Doug McAvoy to defend the lady. The general secretary is not shy of taking on hecklers - they're his own, after all: "I've no doubt a few of you chanted I wouldn't be here next year," he crowed. "Well I'm still here and you're down there," he said referring to his victory in the election for general secretary.

"You don't even know when to heckle. You boo the bad and you boo the good."

Ms Morris was visibly more relaxed - and combative - before the press. The union's stance was madness, she said. Echoing Mr Blunkett's comments on the union's threatened one-day strike, she added: "I must be the only minister heckled for offering a pound;2,000 pay rise."

Platform, 15; Letters, 18

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