Minor heckling, major headlines;Media watch;Union Conference;NUT;National Union of Teachers

17th April 1998 at 01:00
For one weekend, Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, was not the most hated man in education ... that dubious accolade went to Daily Mail journalist Simon Heffer, whose robust views on members of the National Union of Teachers were penned at a safe distance, 200 miles south of Blackpool, writes Frances Rafferty.

The union delegates were described as a "rabble of scruffy, ignorant, militant political extremists". The right-wing pundit said: "Some of the NUT's members have been responsible for inflicting as much damage on society as the average prison full of criminals."

They are not, he added, representative of most teachers in Britain. "However the damage done to the image of teaching by this annual exhibitionism is incalcuable. Parents who do not have the luxury of affording private schools watch with horror I" It has to be said that the NUT did not live up to its reputation, although the slight jeering and minor heckling of David Blunkett were enough to make a story on a quiet news day.

"Blunkett roasts moaning teachers," said the Sun. "Blunkett gets tough with the militants," said the Independent. "Anti-fat pill for dieters," said the Daily Mail.

The previous day's headline on the front page of the Daily Telegraph read "NUT moderates defeat Left after seven years". Moderates, it said, had reasserted their control over the union.

Enough of the left-wing voice was heard, however, to fuel condemnatory editorials.

The Guardian said militant members were putting their narrow concerns before children's interests by unconditionally opposing education action zones which will test new working practices, such as homework clubs and Saturday schools.

It said: "The professional Trots should recognise how much damage their annual Easter posturing does to the reputation of their profession. Any undecided graduate watching their tirades could be forgiven for saying this is not a profession they wish to join."

The Daily Mail leader said there was a "dreary predictability about the time-warp trade unionism espoused by activists in Britain's teaching unions". Mr Blunkett was advised to "seize the opportunity to give these classroom bullies a well-deserved caning".

The Independent was more sympathetic. It did not dismiss members' concerns about the literacy hours as the political posturing suggested by their leader Doug McAvoy.

"Mr Blunkett should lighten up," it said, "and realise that he cannot teach all the nation's children how to read by remote control from Great Smith Street. But the NUT should concentrate on persuading parents that its members could do a better job if they were given more flexibility."

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