Leadership heads off an Easter rebellion;Union Conference;NUT;National Union of Teachers

17th April 1998 at 01:00
The backing of a four-day week was an empty victory for hard-liners in the NUT. Frances Rafferty reports.

The conference slogan for the National Union of Teachers may have been "children, children, children", but the activists were calling for "action, action, action".

While Doug McAvoy must be pleased that he won the "most crucial" vote of conference - an endorsement of the leadership's strategy on education action zones - the debate descended, in the words of executive member Martin Reed, into Alice in Wonderland politics.

A motion calling for a week of action on a national contract - to give staff an equivalent of a four-day teaching week - which included refusing to cover for absent colleagues, refusing to teach large classes and working no more than a 35-hour week was passed. A parade of leadership loyalists told conference to "grow up" as the motion was flawed and undeliverable.

Not that it will be enacted. Mr McAvoy will already have plans to scupper the action by advising the wider membership to vote against it in the ballot which will be required.

The traditional run-in between the Left and the leadership resulted in the former gaining the upper hand. The executive strategy, as ever, was to hope most of the motions ran out of time. And with the Left adding to the time wasting - 45 minutes were spent one morning re-ordering the amendments - there wasn't much finished business.

Mr McAvoy, in discussion with the press, was at pains to pillory left-wing delegates and their political posturing. He likened debate to student politics - and yes, all the lefties sit on the Left and the righties on the Right. But the posturing was not confined to the Left.

When David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, came to conference he knew doing battle with NUT activists could only increase his stock.

Some fairly minor heckling gave him the opportunity to act tough and say:

"Shouting won't make a difference. All you do is put off decent people who want to go into the teaching profession. The comfort is you are a very tiny minority."

Three years ago in Blackpool, Mr Blunkett was jostled by left-wing activists and forced to seek safety in a cupboard.

He told teachers to stop seeing themselves as victims and to become part of a partnership to improve children's life chances. He highlighted the Government's successes and said he could be proud of ending the Assisted Places Scheme, scrapping nursery vouchers and providing all four-year-olds with a nursery place. He had secured pound;835 million to save the education service, pound;250m New Deal money for repairs and the end of outside lavatories.

Mr Blunkett criticised the union's call for a work-to-rule on red tape. He called it was an attack on the standards agenda - despite the NUT saying the action will not affect children's education.

He said he would release pound;100m to get schools wired up to the National Grid for Learning.

Mr Blunkett disagreed with delegates who criticised the Government's literacy policy for being over-prescriptive. He said Mary Compton, a delegate from Radnor, in Powys, was wrong when she said it was like being in East Germany where every lesson was dictated by the Government.

He said the literacy hour was not a threat, it was a promise, and added that the framework was not a diktat, if schools were reaching their targets. The minister said the literacy framework was not negotiable, despite the union's vote for a delay in its implementation.

Mr McAvoy saw off a challenge to take a strong line against education action zones. John Bills, for the executive, said he was against them in principle, but as the Government was determined to establish them it was essential to become involved to protect teachers' conditions of service.

A motion condemning the Government's policy of naming and shaming was unanimously passed. Dave Harvey, from Croydon, explained how devastating it had been for schools in the London borough to have been singled out by the Government. Teachers became demoralised and school rolls immediately fell. A primary, Ashburton, suffered by association with its namesake, a "named" secondary.

When Mr McAvoy replied to the Secretary of State's speech - saying on balance the Government was doing a good job - he won a standing ovation for criticising the naming and shaming strategy.

A motion supporting comprehensive education and opposing selection was unanimously upheld. Anna Glukstein, from Westminster, said Labour in its White Paper was wrong to champion setting and whole-class teaching. She said that was teaching on the cheap.

Nick Grant, from Ealing, said he was proud to be a NUT militant. He said the Government's legislation was supporting selection and division between schools.

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