Frances Rafferty reports from the more surreal fringes of the Professional Association of Teachers' conference. "I don't know what is going on," said Celia Hicks. She wasn't the only one.
Mrs Hicks, speaking from the podium at the annual conference of the Professional Association of Teachers, was taking part in a debate on a motion which said selective education condemns the vast majority of students to a second-rate education. The discussion was too wide and bland, she said.
It was also confusing, especially as one speaker against the motion had been a proposer of a motion rejecting the 11-plus the day before. Mrs Hicks's intervention had the motion voted out. For once the abstainers were not in the majority.
Perhaps it is because the PAT holds its conference at the beginning of the summer break and its delegates are feeling demob-happy. But there was certainly a surreal air to the proceedings in Cheltenham Spa.
Simon Fletcher, a delegate from the Norfolk region, speaking to the motion, "Conference believes in equality of educational opportunity," suggested a new Cabinet post should be created for a Secretary of State for the removal of body hair. This was because American research had shown that men with more body hair were, on average, more intelligent. Therefore true equality could only be achieved through compulsory all-over shaving.
Another motion called for parents who fail a basic test in parenthood to be compelled to attend lessons in parenting. One delegate envisaged Barbara-Woodhouse-style classes throughout the country. Another objected to the phrase "basic test". The motion was lost.
PAT has 40,000 members and is best known as the no-strike union. It was the only union representing classroom teachers which did not support the boycott of national curriculum tests two years ago. It was also the union which Gillian Shephard spoke to first, within days of becoming Education and Employment Secretary.
This year Cheryl Gillan, the junior education minister, was despatched from the department to give the address. She failed to impress. "She's the worst minister who has ever spoken to PAT," said Noel Henderson, council member for Cleveland and North Yorkshire.
Delegates found more pleasing the performance of Stephen Byers, one of Labour's education spokesmen. John Andrews, PAT's general secretary, said: "Members liked a number of the things he said, for example setting up a general teachers' council and reform of the way education is funded, but the problem with Labour is the con factor. Will it be able to deliver? I think my members are very sceptical about politicians."
Mr Andrews also condemned Tory MPs on the Home Affairs committee who voted against a ban on handguns following the killings at Dunblane primary school. The union has six members in the school and Susan Leslie, PAT's council member representing the Fife area, said she was appalled. She said she wanted the Scottish Secretary to ensure money was made available to increase security in schools north of the border.
The union is also concerned about the decline in the number of men entering the profession. Anthea Millett, chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency, said if present trends continue there will be no men in Britain's primary schools by 2010. Only one of 10 primary teachers is a man.
Delegates said it was important for children to have male role models, especially as so many are being brought up in homes without fathers. Elizabeth Arnold-Davies, head of Grove infants school in Portland, Dorset, which has no men on the staff, said she had never had an application from a man in 15 years. She said fears of allegations of child abuse was a factor. "Small children want to touch people and men are very wary of this," she said.
Ms Millett said the TTA would be looking at ways of setting targets for the recruitment of men to teacher training, but it had to be mindful of sex equality legislation.
The overall quality of teachers entering the profession is causing concern, according to Peter Jenkins, the union's national chairman. He said teachers should have to pass an English and communications test before being allowed in the classroom. He said many new teachers could not spell: "When I was an acting head it was a nightmare to have to ask younger teachers to go away and re-phrase a report or ask them to use a dictionary or spell-check. If children see something spelt wrongly by a teacher then they will copy that."
The conference voted to reject selection by 11-plus, joining all the other teacher unions' opposition to the Prime Minister's hope to have a grammar school in every town. PAT also voted to show its concern over the rapid growth of teacher supply agencies which undercut local authority rates.