Shephard arranges talks with unions: Minister makes clean break from Patten

GILLIAN SHEPHARD, the new Secretary of State for Education, has made a clean break from her predecessor and has arranged talks, beginning today, with the teaching unions.

Only days into the job, Mrs Shephard told her officials to arrange meetings with the teaching unions.

That contrasts starkly with the attitude taken by John Patten, sacked in last week's reshuffle, who started in the post by boycotting the unions. The continuous battle with teachers over testing - with parents largely supporting the unions - sapped the education department's morale and showed up its lack of imagination. Teachers were successful in a huge campaign of civil disobedience over the tests at 7, 11 and 14. When Mr Patten, after refusing to meet the teachers, described a parents' group as 'Neanderthal', collision courses were set.

Mrs Shephard, a former teacher and schools inspector, has made it plain that she wants peace in schools and consensus with the unions. Today, she will meet the National Association of Head Teachers. George Varnava, a vice-president who will be at the meeting, said: 'She approached us within 48 hours of her taking the job. We are delighted that she has acted in completely the opposite way from John Patten.'

He said they wanted to ensure that paths were smoothed for curriculum development and testing. 'We want to see past conflicts over testing disappear.'

On Thursday, Mrs Shephard will meet the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. The NUT, but not the NASUWT, is continuing its tests boycott.

Doug McAvoy, the NUT general secretary, said: 'We are looking forward to meeting her and hope it will be a productive dialogue. If there is a blank piece of paper and we are invited to talk about our concerns, which is what we understand the meeting to be, then we cannot anticipate the outcome, but we welcome the opportunity.'

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the NASUWT, said: 'I very much welcome the change. It is a good start. We will say to her that she should continue to listen to the arguments about slimming down the national curriculum.'

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