Tide of frustration drowns moderation
A shocked nation woke last Thursday to the news that the "traditionally moderate" ATL had voted at its annual conference in Harrogateto take industrial action to reduce class sizes. What is more, it had invited Trades Union Congress general secretary John Monks to give the after-dinner speech - despite not even being affiliated to the TUC.
General secretary Peter Smith said: "Members' feelings were such that it was impossible to swim against the tide. Sometimes people protest through a mood of frustration. ATL members are hardly trigger-happy."
The controversial debate took place shortly before the 800 delegates were addressed by Education Secretary Gillian Shephard. The vote could provide ammunition for her battle to prise more money from the Treasury for education funding, but she was careful to condemn the vote at the press conference later, saying it would not help the profession's image.
Only a handful of dissenting voices were heard, usually on a minor technical point.
The motion advised members, on the grounds of excessive workload and health and safety, not to take sole responsibility for longer than two consecutive days for any single-age class of more than 31 pupils or any mixed-age class of more than 29.
John Parkinson from Doncaster, proposing the motion, cited the Star project in Tennessee in the United States which showed that pupils in smaller classes did significantly better in maths and English.
Mr Parkinson said: "The Tories' favourite shibboleth of market forces also shows that smaller class sizes are a selling point for the independent sector as is evident by the wording of advertisements in The TES."
An ATL survey showed that all branch secretaries in 25 per cent of local education authorities in the countrywide sample said impending cuts would mean increases in class sizes.
This survey was one of three drip-fed daily to delegates and the press which backed up the main debate of the day. A resolution on the final day noted "with alarm the increasing and very real fear that OFSTED inspections engender in the majority of practising teachers and the increasing tendency of inspectors to adopt an inhumane, intimidatory and totally unapproachable demeanour when carrying out classroom inspections".
Mrs Shephard's views on inspection drew unusually audible gasps of disbelief. "I know that some schools have approached inspection warily," she said. "But there is evidence that it is having a positive effect and that the framework is proving a valuable management tool." She hoped that when preparing "schools will concentrate on their own chief priorities rather than feeling that every piece of educational coal needs to be whitewashed."
Mrs Shephard, who gave a long and wide-ranging speech taking account of funding fears and praising teachers' professionalism, was given a polite, but hardly ecstatic welcome. Mr Smith called her speech "adroit and skillfully scripted. She has signalled that she understands and empathises with teachers, but a very successful charm offensive is not enough."
"If she comes next year with the same sort of speech she will get a different response. On the funding issue she is waving a postdated cheque with no amount written on it and no guarantee that it will be signed.
"Teachers are optimistic by nature, but the honeymoon period for Gillian Shephard cannot be indefinitely extended."
In his conference speech, Mr Smith looked to a possible change of government. "I have the impression of a simultaneous wish for change but a lack of solid confidence that change will make any real difference.
"Neither of the main parties can afford to campaign on a platform which simply promises more of the same. Equally, neither would be wise to risk promising another protracted period of headlong change.
"That message poses a challenge for Mrs Shephard. To promise teachers half a decade of stability may be too close for comfort to five years' stagnation, to wilful and stubborn inertia over the visible problems the Government's reforms have created."
This has caused a dilemma for Mr Blunkett as well, he said. "Mr Blair's new model army - or at least its generals - seemed to have judged there are many Tory policies which, if adroitly repackaged, will bring them to power."
He went on to warn that the Government had made a serious error of judgment in its budget package on teachers' pay which would have cost relatively little to avoid. "What this and other conferences warn is that the result could well be to reignite a dispute at the very moment the embers appeared to be dying. "
Mr Smith also expressed concern about "a lost generation" of disaffected and apathetic young people who saw politicians as discredited and sleazy. They were turning their backs on democracy. "It is no accident that the neo-fascist movements causing so much concern on the continent, and increasingly in Britain, are essentially youth movements."
It was a bad week for politicians. Even John Monks admonished David Blunkett for his idea of a "fresh start" for failing schools. Labour's shadow education secretary had floated the notion that teachers, especially heads and managers should be removed if schools failed irrevocably - a plan that could lead to hundreds of teachers losing their jobs.
Mr Monks likened this scheme to the world of soccer where, when the team lost, the knee jerk response was to sack the manager. Without adequate funding, he said, a team containing Miss Jean Brodie, Socrates and Mr Chips would not succeed.