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Union gears up to test out soundbites

Teachers and lecturers intend to take politicians who claim education is their top priority at their word - and next week they will test that pledge.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers annual conference in Cardiff will see if the words are snappy soundbites or sincere undertakings at what will be the profession's hustings for the general election.

The ATL is the only one of the main classroom unions to be addressed by the three main parties' education spokespersons at its Easter conference.

Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard will be at the conference on Monday. David Blunkett and Don Foster, her Labour and Liberal Democrat opponents, will be there a day later.

"Members are going to want them to deliver on their promises that education will be first," said a spokesman. "There has been a lot of talk about education being the most important feature of a new administration."

On Monday ATL general secretary Peter Smith will press claims for smaller classes and more resources for schools and with the general election less than six weeks away the political heat will be turned up.

Mrs Shephard's address to heads and governors of grant-maintained schools last week and her speech on nursery vouchers were more political than of late. She even commented on it herself.

The Government is unpopular with the ATL at the moment. Its moves to clamp down on early retirement prompted outrage from the moderate union.

The ATL's five-strong pensions department at its London headquarters has been besieged with calls - 200,000 since November - and the conference will want to deliver a stinging rebuke to the Government.

A hard-hitting composite motion claims the new rules will cause a logjam of older teachers, many soldiering on against their will, while young teachers and potential recruits are barred from promotion or entering the profession.

Another urges the Government to lower the normal retirement age of teachers from 60 to 55, while retaining the option of staying on to 65.

Teachers in Bradford will push for a public inquiry into teachers' pay. They will complain that teaching seems to be such an unattractive profession that it is chosen by fewer and fewer people.

The lack of support for nursery vouchers from teachers in Norfolk - which includes Mrs Shephard's constituency - for nursery vouchers will embarrass the Government.

The scheme will be a few days off being introduced nationally when Shirley Blackman, from Wellesley First School in Norwich, will tell fellow ATL members that it is not the success it is cracked up to be .

Norfolk, along with the London boroughs of Wandsworth, Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea, has piloted the scheme.

Mrs Blackman said it had proved an expensive, time-consuming paper chase which had not really provided more places, which parents did not easily understand and which had put a strain on relationships between them and schools.

Similar concerns were expressed by the all-party House of Commons education and employment select committee.

Mrs Blackman added: "Our experience is that it is not the success the Government claims. We are concerned because, although it might have listened to the problems, it does not seem to have acted."

The conference agenda and daily reports will appear on the ATL's Internet web site. The address is

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