Education honeymoon may be over before it has even begun

High expectations may well be disappointed, writes Judith Judd
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The Easter conference season for the teachers' unions is this year different. The same old themes are there: action on class size, union democracy, horror stories about violent children and the Chief Inspector of Schools. But the mood is expectant. After 18 years of a Conservative government with which they have battled more or less continually, more than 400,000 teachers are daring to hope for something better.

Since 1979, when a sizeable proportion of the profession voted Conservative, there has been a big shift in teachers' political allegiance. In 1992 around half teachers voted Labour. This time nearly 60 per cent say they will probably do so.

With Tony Blair, the Labour leader, promising that his party's priority will be "education, education, education", they are cautiously optimistic, yet any honeymoon between a Labour government and the teachers' unions is likely to be short-lived.

Teachers' priorities, according to an ICM poll conducted for the National Union of Teachers, are more funds for schools and smaller class sizes. Better pay comes next but well behind. It is the conditions under which they work which exercise them most. All the unions protest that years of spending cuts have left most schools grubbing around for books and equipment and many facing painful choices about teacher redundancies and an inexorable rise in class sizes. The NUT conference will today debate motions threatening nation-wide strike action over class sizes. One motion suggests classes should be no larger than 26.

On both funding and class size Labour may have difficulty matching up to the unions' demands. Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, has said that a Labour government would stick to the Tories' public spending totals for the first two years. David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, contended at this week's Association of Teachers and Lecturers' conference that he was confident money saved on social security as the windfall tax helped people back to work would be diverted to education, but the amount and timing are vague.

So far the Labour pledges merely involve shifting money from one bit of the education budget to another. Money from the abolition of the assisted places scheme which helps bright children from poor families attend private schools will he used to reduce class sizes to a maximum of 30 - but only for five- to seven-year-olds. Even Peter Smith, general secretary of ATL, traditionally the most moderate of the three main unions, warned Mr Blair this week that failure to will the means for his triplicate promise would be regarded as a "historic act of duplicity".

Teachers' other main preoccupation is less tangible but no less passionately felt. Never, they believe, has their profession been so devalued and attacked as during the last 18 years. They complain of being unloved and unconsulted. In short, they want a Labour government to be nicer to them.

Labour has certainly talked frequently about the need to take teachers into partnership but the practice may prove harder than the theory. Take Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, who has told teachers that their ideological baggage stops them raising standards.

For the unions, he symbolises the most demoralising attacks on the profession. The noise level at this week's well-behaved ATL conference reached its highest point whenever Mr Woodhouse's name was mentioned. Yesterday Doug McAvoy, the NUT's general secretary, said his executive backed a motion to be debated tomorrow which calls for Mr Woodhead's sacking. The National Association of School Masters/Union of Women Teachers has a motion before it next week demanding Mr Woodhead's resignation.

Yet Mr Blair has said that Mr Woodhead would keep his job under a Labour government.

Mr McAvoy said yesterday that his union supported Labour's proposed changes to the inspection system which would give local authorities a more important role. "The issue between us will not be whether we have a different system of inspection, but is Chris Woodhead the head of it."

The three main unions are far from united in the demands they would make of a Labour government. The NUT is implacably opposed to Labour's acceptance of the Tories' national tests for pupils aged 7, 11 and 14. For the NASUWT, reducing workload is a major concern.

But Labour has no plans for an immediate review of the curriculum and testing. Indeed, the introduction of testing for five-year-olds to which the party is committed is likely to increase rather than reduce primary teachers' burden.

Changes to the pensions rules proposed by the government which would make it harder for teachers to retire earlier have been postponed but they, too, will prove a bone of contention. No single issue has provoked so much anger in the profession for many years and two unions have taken legal action. Yet there is no sign that Labour would rescind the plans.

Peter Smith told his union conference that teachers had to accept more criticism, admit that many of the Tory reforms are here to stay and that standards must be higher.

The other two conferences are unlikely to hear similar speeches from their platforms. Mr Smith's message is a hard one, well in tune with the aims of new Labour, but a long way from a union's traditional agenda.

Local authorities accused of overspend on schools

Local authorities are keeping schools afloat by spending more than the amount allowed by the Government, according to a report published yesterday, writes Judith Judd.

A study from independent consultants Coopers & Lybrand commissioned by the National Union of Teachers says most authorities are spending above their standard spending assessment - the amount allowed by the government.

The study looked at spending patterns in five local authorities and found that they had subsidised education by raiding other spending areas such as social services. However, the study says they no longer have the reserves or resources to do this.

Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, has said that she has increased spending on schools by 3.6 per cent this year.

Doug McAvoy, the union's general secretary, said that for some local authorities that meant a cut in real terms.

He added: "Across the country, education authorities have been spending more than the Government says they should. Though spending more than the Government wants, authorities have not been able to fund the service adequately.

"This will leave education exposed to reduction in provision more severe than ever experienced in the past."