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There still is honey for the NAHT

Clare Dean finds Gillian Shephard is in danger of overplaying the amiability card. "I've lost count of the number of invitations that I've had today from Gillian Shephard to meet her. There's been so many that I'm thinking of getting an office at the Department for Education."

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, was joking, of course. But he had a point.

Mrs Shephard had gone out of her way to be conciliatory. Not for her the boos and hisses that greeted John Patten two years ago when he addressed the NAHT.

"I think you are doing the most important job there is," she enthused. "Isn't it a good thing to be working with young people?" Not only aware of the "immensely important" role heads played, Mrs Shephard understood how difficult it was to cope with "an extremely awkward chair of governors, teacher, cleaner or caretaker who nobody can tame.

"Being a head is a lonely job, you can feel isolated. And this isolation is made worse by the abundance of advice, information, exhortation much from the Department for Education. But it is a terrific job."

Her "personal thoughts" on headship - interestingly not included in the official speech - were the stuff designed to win over hearts and minds.

Difficulties over funding, whether to sack staff, cut back on books and equipment, or increase class sizes were momentarily forgotten by delegates, and disputes with gung-ho governors put to one side.

Here was a secretary of state for education who was apparently on their side. Her husband, to cap it all, had been a member of the NAHT.

She understood - even acknowledged for the first time - problems with hooligans in the classroom, and won loud applause when she said it could not be the job of schools alone to put them right.

Mrs Shephard even divulged that her husband had been head of a "sink" school, had caned a pupil, who years later as a tattooed ex-convict met him in the street, pumped his hand and said: "How wonderful, my old headmaster."

"The point is," she told the Harrogate conference, "the role of the teacher and head is more important than it ever feels."

But while the honeyed words and a a moratorium on change are largely welcomed by the profession, they will count for little if there is not enough cash to keep teachers in jobs, put books in front of children and stop dilapidation in schools.

Mrs Shephard promised last week to "do my best" in the fight for money for education but she faces a battle with Cabinet colleagues for the Pounds 1 billion extra she is rumoured to want.

Her trump card, she claimed, was the Prime Minister. Citing John Major's recent pledge on education, she told the NAHT: "He gave an assurance, and I repeat it today, education will be at the top of our priorities as the economy delivers further growth."

Elsewhere in her speech she stressed the importance of education to Britain's economic future. But - even by her own officials' admission - it was little more than an end-of-term report touching on the recent competitiveness White Paper, national training targets and the school effectiveness programme.

She departed from her text to the delight of delegates, however, to admit for the first time that hooliganism was rife in some schools, and promised Government would review sanctions available to schools after a three-fold increase in exclusions in three years to an estimated 10,000 this year.

She pledged, too, meetings with the NAHT over disputes between heads and governors - "Let's have the evidence and we'll look at it" - and on difficulties funding support for children with special educational needs.

It was only on special educational needs that she provoked significant unrest among delegates as she shifted the blame for funding problems on to schools.

Government had never intended the SEN code of practice be adopted overnight, she told delegates: "It is here we come back to that guilt feeling because you feel that you have got to go for it immediately."

Mrs Shephard was described by George Varnava, NAHT president, as a "good player in the wrong team", while David Hart said her speech had been that of the consummate politician.

He added: "The jury is out on whether the Secretary of State can deliver when it comes to real education money for 199697. She has an enormous reservoir of goodwill at the moment, but that could very quickly evaporate if Cabinet doesn't come up with the cash this autumn."

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