Alan Smithers: How Easter conferences make clowns of teachers

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The Independent Online

The teachers' unions do themselves no favours at their Easter conferences. Throughout the year, behind the scenes, they beaver away effectively, optimising their members' salaries and working conditions, and representing those who get into difficulty.

But come Easter, the main unions seem to compete to be the most outrageous - or, at least, that is how it comes across. The hounding of David Blunkett and Lucy, his guide dog, into a cupboard by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) is notorious. But other secretaries of state have also been on the receiving end. Estelle Morris, a member of the NUT herself, was heckled and slow handclapped. And last year, Ruth Kelly was gratuitously insulted in her absence by the NUT president. Small wonder that ministers are wary of attending.

Then there are the barmy speeches. Last week, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) was advocating scrapping the national curriculum and replacing it with skills training - as if it were possible to teach creativity, communication, and learning and thinking (are these "skills" anyway?) without them being rooted in subjects. It was also gunning for 4x4 "Chelsea tractors".

The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) explained away bad pupil behaviour as being Mrs Thatcher's fault. Its general secretary astonishingly implied that a judge was guilty of encouraging racism when he questioned whether it was sensible for a 10-year-old to end up in court for name-calling in the playground. And the NUT conference, as ever, had calls for strike action.

But it's not all, or even mainly, like this. NASUWT is working at being friends with the Government, and the NUT has consciously become less intemperate. But there is still enough to feed the caricature. How can it be that the unions are so keen to shoot themselves in the foot? Four competing unions, with four annual conferences, three in succession at Easter, has a lot to do with it.

In more than a week of conferencing there is plenty of time to be occupied, so almost anyone with a bee in their bonnet can find a platform of some sort. In the competition for headlines, the news-hungry delegates tend to look for something unusual to say, or drive forward the latest ideological fad to new extremes, or find something to complain about. In this way, teachers succeed in presenting themselves - with a little help from their friends in the media - as quirky, politically correct whingers.

This is so far from the truth that one wonders why it was not stamped on long ago. Union leaders may groan at the thought of Easter, but they seem to be locked into an annual cycle: no sooner has one year's conference ended than preparation for the next begins. One way of breaking out would be to agree to a joint Easter conference.

At a stroke this would cut the time available for ranting, and focus the debates and coverage on what the unions see as the core issues. In coming together, the unions would acknowledge the huge amount of common ground between them and be able to concentrate on promoting the interests of the profession as a whole instead of, as now, accentuating minor differences as one-upmanship.

Who knows? In time, with some skilful preparatory work, shared conferences could pave the way for some federal structure. Each union is a social system with people at the top who have fought hard to be there, so it is too much to hope that unification could take place in the short term. But a National Federation of Teachers, consisting of the individual unions working closely together, ought to be entirely possible.

Teachers have a lot to learn from doctors who, in the British Medical Association (BMA), have perhaps the most powerful union in the country. It, too, holds a conference, but without the accompanying hullabaloo. It is hugely successful in advising on contracts, as is evident in the health-service budget, but doctors remain highly respected professionals with no taint of money-grubbing. The BMA's strength is in its unity and unobtrusiveness.

The teachers' unions should set aside their rivalries, accept that not all publicity is good publicity, and work towards some unified framework. Tackling the Easter-conference problem would be a good first step. Without the annual extravaganza, the public's perception of teachers would have a better chance of being grounded in reality.

The writer is Professor of Education and director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University