Strange breed descend on Nigel's playground

27th April 2001 at 01:00
IT cost pound;16,000 an hour and was dubbed "Nigel's playground". Yes, this year's annual conference of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers was its biggest ever.

The lure of a week in Jersey - albeit in a cramped and darkened hall - saw 1,200 delegates from all parts of Britain flock to the island that brought us Bergerac and the general secretary.

Nigel de Gruchy was back on home turf, golf bags at the ready according to the local paper, and in a conference centre built on the site of his old school playground.

Organisers had to accommodate 25 per cent more delegates than usual. Scores were left standing at the back of the hall in the Hotel de France in St Hellier. They spilled over into an exhibition hall and there was even live coverage on the union's website.

As Dave Battye, a past president of the union, admitted, conference-goers are a strange breed. "We are a select band," he told delegates. "We must be because most people would rather do anything else than come to a conference at Easter."

Quite how much they cherish the conference became clear in one of its most heated debates - not about education bt the amount of time allocated to outside speakers.

Nicely timed it was too. Just before shadow education secretary Theresa May addressed delegates. In the only real vote of the week, delegates voted 391 to 320, in the face of opposition from the union's national executive, for less time to be allocated to outside speakers.

The irony was not lost on Mrs May, who this Easter has grown used to being cold-shouldered.

Three-quarters of the delegates to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in Torquay left before she began speaking. At the National Union of Teachers' conference in Cardiff, people read their newspapers.

"Now you're planning to stop me coming at all," she told the NASUWT. "I'm beginning to get the message," she said.

The conference cost the union pound;500,000 without the bar bills run up during late-night carousing. The value to the union though of the almost daily coverage in national newspapers is inestimable.

As is the fun had by delegates, who braved anti-foot-and-mouth disinfectant mats at air and ferry ports, for Nigel's swansong conference. Next year he becomes president of the Trades Union Congress.

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