Woman in ice blue fails to melt her audience

12th April 1996 at 01:00
Lucy Ward weighs up how the politicians went down at the NUT'smeeting

As in a Whitehall farce, exits and entrances held the key to the action when the Education Secretary and her Opposition counterpart took centre stage at the annual conference of Britain's largest teaching union.

Gillian Shephard accepted the offer of a speaking part - becoming the first government minister to address the National Union of Teachers' conference for 16 years - and all eyes in Cardiff's St David's Hall turned to see whether any of the audience would walk out in protest. Some delegates, furious at the moderate national executive's decision to issue the invitations to politicians at the expense of cherished debating time, had threatened a swift exit stage Left.

A demonstration by their comrades, meanwhile, was blamed by Mrs Shephard as the reason for her own entrance through a rear door, where she and her minders ran the gauntlet merely of a few strategically-placed television crews.

Her Labour shadow David Blunkett was at the centre of a drama at the NUT's conference in Blackpool last year when he was mobbed by militant union members. This Easter, he followed Mrs Shephard's lead and opted for the back door, though his bolder speech, offering an initiative to fund repairs for crumbling schools, won sustained applause in contrast to the cool reaction to her performance the previous day.

The Education and Employment Secretary, dressed in an ice-blue suit to face delegates clad in conference uniform of Pounds 3-a-throw No to Tory Cuts T-shirts, told teachers their professionalism had "never been under so much scrutiny". Turning their backs on accountability and on the wishes of parents would damage the standards of the profession, she insisted.

But, on stage at least, that was as tough as it got. A silent protest as Mrs Shephard stood to speak saw a row of 13 delegates turn away from the platform to hold up letters reading No To Selection. But her unconfrontational address made no mention of Government proposals to remove limits on schools' right to select pupils - due in a White Paper this summer - nor of the flashpoint topics of nursery vouchers or primary-school league tables. The speech - the executive had limited it to just 20 minutes and banned questions - was met largely with silence, punctuated with the occasional muted jeer or mocking laughter. Only a handful of members ostentatiously read Socialist Teacher throughout. At the end, a conference usually to be relied on for fire and fearlessness even mustered a brief clap.

The restraint, offering a rare example of unity in a union of many factions, was orchestrated. Despite their opposition to Mrs Shephard's visit, left-wing groups - including the Socialist Teachers' Alliance to which incoming president Carole Regan belongs - had urged silent protest in leaflets circulating at the conference, and general secretary Doug McAvoy had publicly done the same. Presenting the Secretary of State with an opportunity to be seen boldly facing down baying militants would simply play into her hands, explained STA members emerging from an earnest conflab. What was more, it would hand Mr McAvoy evidence of conference volatility, adding weight to his much criticised - and, inevitably, defeated - proposals to shift power in the union from conference to individual members through a one-member, one-vote system of ballots on key issues.

The general secretary, replying to Mrs Shephard with a bullish call for more money for education, might have sacrificed political points, but won his biggest-ever conference ovation and, if briefly, succeeded in uniting delegates behind him.

The Secretary of State, however, was left to convince a wider audience she had taken a tough stance. In a news conference afterwards, she beefed up her message, stressing the importance of standards and twice insisting teachers must accept there was "no turning back". Protests outside the hall, she claimed, were "extremely childish and very old-fashioned". Some who had witnessed the two dozen Socialist Workers and their assorted comrades, handing out leaflets with only one megaphone between them, might have questioned the need for Mrs Shephard's caution.

Mr Blunkett, whose reception committee - in stark contrast to last year - consisted only of the media and a man with a placard promoting Esperanto, earned a warm and prolonged ovation for his speech touching on all the issues conspicuously absent from Mrs Shephard's. He reaffirmed his party's commitment to scrap nursery vouchers and halt any extension to selection. And in a step that might have made bigger headlines had Labour leader Tony Blair not chosen Easter Sunday to link his politics with Christianity, he announced a scheme to create partnerships between schools, local authorities and financial institutions in order to tackle the Pounds 3.2 billion backlog of school repairs.

The plan was warmly welcomed by Graham Lane, chair of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities' education committee, though sceptical delegates, only too aware of the reality of leaking roofs and draughty portable classrooms, remained to be convinced that the cash would materialise. Mr McAvoy called on Labour to seek the money through taxation if it was not forthcoming elsewhere.

As Mr Blunkett left to prepare for the final date on this year's three-nation teaching union conference tour, the NASUWT event in Glasgow, his Liberal Democrat counterpart arrived to take his place in the limelight. Don Foster, by his own admission, offered no "new gimmicks" - even his speech had been heard a few days earlier at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' conference. But though he may have had only a bit part in this NUT's passion play, he could at least boast of having made a bolder entrance than the Secretary of State and her shadow. Mr Foster strode fearlessly through the front doors of the hall, and only the cruellest delegates suggested he could do so because nobody recognised him.

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