Leading article: Dialogue goes two ways

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The Independent Online

Ruth Kelly will not be turning up to the annual conference of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), which opens tomorrow, despite being issued with an invitation to speak. Nor will any of her ministerial team or any civil servants from the Department for Education and Skills. They are boycotting the Harrogate conference in protest over the NAHT's decision to withdraw from the workload agreement giving all teachers 10 per cent off for marking and preparation. They are thereby spurning the opportunity to persuade delegates to change their minds.

It has been a burning issue for the NAHT whether or not to join up to the agreement. Last year, a majority of members recommended pulling out because of the increased workload it placed on heads. But the debate was finely balanced. There was, therefore, a realistic chance that a persuasive speech from a minister could have triggered a change of heart. Even if it did not, a minister visiting the NAHT conference is likely to be given a fair hearing. From the Government's point of view, therefore, it was worth a try. But the DfES is not even sending an observer to the conference to listen to the head teachers debating and to report back. Many of the issues up for discussion have nothing to do with the workload agreement. They are about things such as whether to prosecute pupils making malicious allegations of abuse against heads or teachers, and how to cut down on bureaucracy in schools.

Since 1997, successive Labour ministers have emphasised that the secret to creating a successful school is to have a successful head teacher. David Blunkett and his ministers believed that it was essential to have head teacher support for their reforms. That did not mean the latter dictated the agenda, but it did mean government engaging with them. By closing their ears to the authentic voice of head teachers (the NAHT is the only head teacher organisation representing primary heads), ministers are denying themselves useful feedback for their reforms. Mick Brookes, the new general secretary of the NAHT, may have a point that this stance is more likely to harden attitudes than soften opposition. By all means exclude the NAHT from formal negotiations on the contract until they return to the table, but at least listen to what they have to say.