Teachers booed, slow hand-clapped and shouted "shame" at Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, yesterday as she warned them that strike action risked ruining their reputation and their children's education.
A handful of delegates at the National Union of Teachers' annual conference in Bournemouth even walked out before she started to speak, in protest at widely leaked comments that she had come to condemn them over industrial action.
On two occasions, the NUT's president, Kathryn Stallard, had to intervene to give the hecklers a stern ticking off and restore order. As the heckling reached a crescendo, Ms Stallard, the head of a special school in Sheffield, told delegates: "I know people do have their individual frustrations and want to release them. However, we have a guest speaker and I believe the vast majority are wishing to hear what she has to say."
As delegates cried "We didn't invite her", Ms Stallard added: "The time to judge the quality and the content of the address will be after it has been made so can we respond to Estelle and give her the courtesy we would to any guest speaker to our conference."
The NUT is threatening industrial action if the Government fails to fund fully a package to reduce teachers' workload this summer. Only minutes before she got up to speak delegates passed a motion unanimously threatening strike action if they were forced to go on training sessions outside school hours.
Against a background of more shouting from a minority of delegates, Ms Morris, who is still an NUT member and went on strike over pay in the 1980s, said: "I cannot and will not do business on these crucially important issues if people are going on strike. It muddies the relationship between the teacher and child. It also muddies the respect people have for the profession. I don't believe you will maintain support if you take strike action."
She pleaded with the union to work in partnership with the Government only to be greeted with cries of "Not with you, Estelle".
Placards were also unveiled during her speech demanding "Strike now" and calling for a London cost-of-living allowance of £6,000. Teachers in London and the Home Counties staged a one-day strike earlier this month in protest at being awarded only £3,105. They want parity with the police, who get £6,000.
Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the NUT, replying to her speech, said: "Sometimes it is necessary to take strike action. This union has no history of taking strike action lightly. It is and always has been a last resort."He said action "would not prevent dialogue continuing".