Whispering in assembly

31st July 1998 at 01:00
It was the conference where the former general secretary reappeared as mysteriously as he had disappeared 10 months ago, and where there was a debate that never happened. At one point even the agenda was rearranged to accommodate a local television crew.

As most teachers headed for the shores of Brittany, their colleagues from the Professional Association of Teachers gathered in Cheltenham for their annual conference.

It was a surprise to see John Andrews, the former general secretary, mingling with delegates on the opening day. But if anyone knew the real reason why he suddenly left his post last October they remained tight-lipped.

"It's the gagging clause," one delegate whispered. "We may never know what happened." A few speculated he had returned to haunt them.

Meanwhile, the Scots were staging an argument over the wording of a motion. One delegate, Susan Leslie, told the stunned assembly that her colleague Iain MacLennan's address as the proposer was "inaccurate and not true" and that no vote should be taken. Consequently, an entire debate on teacher retirement was struck from the record as though it had never happened.

Ms Leslie, a Scottish executive member, had earlier referred to local education authorities as "Stalinist regimes who obviously have something to hide", during a debate on the basic human right of freedom of expression.

Surprisingly for this politically moderate assembly, delegates admitted schools were fiddling truancy figures because it was easier not to have unruly youngsters in school. Noel Henderson told the conference the figures were "not worth the paper they were written on".

Early-years education inspired some of best debate. Geraldine Everett, a PAT council member, likened testing and targets for primary pupils to ``battery farming".

Debe Lawson, from Gloucester, denounced formal literacy and numeracy teaching for the under-fives and said skills acquired through play were being neglected.

And in a debate on the decline of fun in primary schools, Pamela Southcott, from Berkshire, recalled a headteacher who would throw water on the playground in a frost so that the pupils would have something to slide on the next day.

She said that even art was no longer fun because primary class pupils "have to study the great masters and produce pictures in the style of Matisse and Monet. You no longer go into the classroom any more and think immediately, gosh this is super."

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