Minister heckled at teachers' conference over pension reform

Teachers heckled and jeered the Schools minister yesterday as he tried to justify a range of government policies to them.

Nick Gibb was harangued by delegates at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' annual conference over government threats to teachers' pensions, cuts in education funding and university tuition fees.

The heckling at the Liverpool conference started with cries of "Rubbish" and "Not true" after he had claimed of government changes to the teachers' pension scheme: "We don't want to see a race to the bottom in terms of pension provision." One delegate accused Mr Gibb's boss, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, of "political cowardice" for deciding not to address any of the teachers' union conferences over Easter. When Mr Gibb replied: "Michael's on holiday", there were cries from around the hall of "So are we!"

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL, described the mood as "the frostiest reception I have ever seen for a minister at an ATL conference."

Only 24 hours earlier the union – traditionally the most moderate of the three major teachers' unions – had voted for the first time in its history to ballot its members on strike action over pensions. Teachers are being asked to contribute £100 a month more towards the scheme. In addition, the retirement age is being raised to 68. It was the first time in more than a decade that a government minister had faced heckling at a teaching union's Easter conference – the last time being when delegates at a National Union of Teachers' conference staged a walk-out when the then Schools minister Estelle Morris was addressing them.

Mr Gibb tried to tell the conference: "I fully understand the strength of feeling here," but was shouted down with "No, you don't".

He added that he felt public service pension provision should remain "gold standard". Malcolm St John Smith, of the union's executive, retorted: "My gold-plated pension is £11,000 after 30 years' service."

Mr Gibb was heckled again after a delegate, Elizabeth Lampard, from Staffordshire, asked him: "Why is there money to support the opposition in Libya while teachers' pensions and education funding are under attack?"

He replied: "These decisions are very important in terms of defending our national interests", but there were shouts of "Rubbish!" and "Oil".

On university funding, he was asked whether he was disappointed that so many universities were opting to charge the maximum £9,000 a year. There were cries of "What about getting a mortgage?" as he said graduates would only have to pay loans back when they were earning £21,000 a year.

After his address Mr Gibb said he thought the teachers had been "very polite", adding: "They laughed at some of my jokes." He promised to report back on their concerns and appeared to offer an olive branch over a recommendation by the Lord Hutton review on pensions that independent school teachers should be excluded from the state scheme. Dr Bousted said afterwards: "If the ATL is so angry, where is the Government going to go? We're middle England."

Earlier in the day, delegates warned that spending cuts would mean school trips being axed and libraries closing.

In her address to the conference, Dr Bousted said they meant "savage cuts to minority support services, psychological services, pupil and parent services, behaviour support services ... and children and adolescent mental health services". In one authority alone, Hull, 599 staff were being made redundant as the number of truancy officers was cut from 15 to three, and music and sports services were made completely self-financing.

'Stop using gay to mean bad'

Teachers debated whether children should be corrected every time they use the word "gay" in a negative way.

Pupils use the word as a synonym for "bad" without thinking about the offence they could cause, a religious education teacher, David Kinnen, told a fringe meeting at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' conference. "The word 'gay' is tolerated where racist words would not be," he said. "If someone says something is 'gay' in my lesson, I will ask them what is happy or homosexual about the thing they are talking about. It makes them think about the use of the word."

Mr Kinnen claimed schools often turn a blind eye to homophobic bullying.

Ambushed ministers

* David Blunkett had to take refuge in a side office in 1995 – described by some as a "cupboard" because of how small it was – after the then shadow Education Secretary was chased the length of the Blackpool Winter Gardens by chanting NUT delegates upset over his plans to close failing schools and give them a "fresh start" with a new name and new staff.

* Estelle Morris was confronted with a walk-out by NUT delegates when she addressed their conference as Schools minister in 2000. Government policies aimed at naming and shaming failing schools had angered them.

* Also in 2000, the Prime Minister Tony Blair was famously slow hand-clapped and heckled by members of the Women's Institute who considered his address to them too long and overtly political.

* The then Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt had the distinction of being heckled and jeered twice in a week in 2006 as she sought to defend government health reforms – which could involve redundancies – to the Unison and Royal College of Nurses' conferences.

* Ruth Kelly was heckled at the Secondary Heads' Association conference – also in 2006 – after suggesting they should let parents have more say in the running of their schools. They thought her tone too patronising.

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