Primary school teacher to take Michael Gove to task at union conference

ATL leader Alison Sherratt will tell the Education Secretary: 'Leave them teachers alone'

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The Independent Online

A primary school teacher will deliver a heartfelt plea to two potential education secretaries when the teaching union conference season begins in earnest next week.

In a rewording of the Pink Floyd hit "Another Brick in the Wall", with its memorable line "We don't need no education", she will say, in no uncertain terms: "Ministers, leave them teachers alone."

Alison Sherratt, who has taught at Riddlesden St Mary's C of E Primary School in Keighley, near Bradford, for 28 years, is currently president of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL). She told The Independent on Sunday that she had become "fed up" tuning in to BBC Radio 4's Today in the morning and hearing a minister say: "We're going to change things and teachers will have to do this, that and the other."

The traditionally moderate ATL – with a larger share of grammar school and independent teachers among its membership than the other unions – is the only one of the big three teachers' unions with good enough links to the coalition to warrant a government minister's visit to its conference.

The Liberal Democrat schools minister, David Laws, will be attending this year's event in Manchester, as will Labour's Shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt. The National Union of Teachers no longer invites ministers to its conferences, to give its delegates more time to speak, and the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) has been spurned by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, and his team.

With Mr Laws and Mr Hunt both credible candidates for the role of the education post after the election, Mrs Sherratt believes she will not be wasting her time in making her exhortation.

"My first reaction would be to say to them that – if either of them did become education secretary – not to take the whole machinery apart and put it back together again quickly without consulting with the profession," she said.

"If they did that, they'd find the seams were loose. My advice to them would be to go into the office and take stock. Teaching is constantly being barraged with a range of reforms. We need time to bed things down and get on with our jobs."

Despite widespread opposition to many of Mr Gove's reforms and the way the public spending squeeze has hit teachers' pockets – with pay curbs for the past three years and increased contributions towards teachers' pensions – she and the other senior officials at ATL see no prospect of its joining in strike action with the other unions in protest.

While the union showed its muscle by striking over the pensions issue a couple of years ago, there are currently no signs of militancy within its normally moderate ranks.

It will be a different story at the conferences of the two other unions over the Easter weekend. Activists in the National Union of Teachers are pressing to follow the one-day strike on 26 March, with further industrial action in the summer term. The NASUWT, which did not join that strike, has warned that it will not balk at escalating its current work-to-rule if there are no signs of progress in talks over the dispute with senior officials at the Department for Education.

Mrs Sherratt is not a typical union activist. If she had not taken a year off from her job to take on the role of union president, she would have been proudly teaching the first grandchild of a pupil she taught at her primary school in Keighley.

She became active in the union 20 years ago. "There were some redundancies threatened at my school and I was the only ATL person in it," she said. So she went along to her local branch meeting, where there was a vacancy on the committee for someone with experience of teaching pupils in their early years. After that experience she was not going to stand on the sidelines any more.

She is proud of some of the work her union has been engaged in social issues, such as trying to combat the access young primary school pupils have to violent video games. She has developed some expertise on the issue, having spoken about it at her annual conference.

Mrs Sherratt, a reception class teacher for four- or five-year-olds, said: "I noticed some of the boys playing quite roughly and violently with a plastic toy.

"I asked one of them about it and he said it was from a film he had seen on his brother's TV screen."

She added that she later discovered some of the year six (10- and 11-year-old pupils) actually had copies of violent computer games.

Since then, the union has been campaigning for a code of conduct that would force programme makers to give parents more idea about the content of their games.

"I don't want a ban on them," she said. "What I was asking for was guidance to alert parents in order to help them realise what the implications were of what these children were doing.

"There has been some progress, but we're still looking into it."

Similarly, the union is also working behind the scenes to make girls more aware of the dangers of female genital mutilation – by helping draw up guidance to give older pupils in particular more information to help them stand up against family pressures.

Delegates will be debating a motion at the conference calling on the Home Office to draw up a national strategy aimed at eliminating female genital mutilation in the UK "so that female genital mutilation is classified as a form of child abuse and perpetrators are prosecuted".

It is, she says, what she likes about ATL – that it finds time to debate the social issues that sometimes do not make it on to the agendas of other union conferences.

By the end of her week in the spotlight, you can expect the union to have taken a stand on female genital mutilation and a later motion calling for help to alleviate what it calls "the great British poverty crisis" by taking action to curb the exploitation of poorer people by loan companies through high-interest loans.

The heavy guns of the bigger teacher union battalions will follow over the Easter weekend.