Charm comes too late to pacify the class of '95

Gillian Shephard may seem to be the teachers' pet, but actions speak louder than words, writes Judith Judd
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As Gillian Shephard charms her way through the teachers unions' conference season with a giggle here and a reassuring word there, her personal triumphs in repairing relations between teachers and the Government are not in doubt. The boos and derisivelaughter that greeted her predecessor, John Patten, at teacher conferences have melted away. Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, says that as a former teacher Mrs Shephard understands the profession. Teachers no longer feel they are being blamed by politicians for all schools' failings. Relations between the profession and the Secretary of State for Education appear better than they have been for more than a decade.

Yet what do teachers really think? On the day Mrs Shephard won the personal approval of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, that most moderate of unions voted for a ballot on industrial action over rising class sizes. This weekend some delegates at the NUT conference in Blackpool will again call for strike action on class size and even for a renewal of the testing boycott which has so far crippled government plans for national tests at seven, 11 and 14.

Of course, the activists of the teachers' conferences are more militant than classroom teachers, and delegates at the two conferences are unlikely to carry the membership with them. Mrs Shephard's deal with NUT leaders to end the two-year boycott will almost certainly stick. There may be some sporadic local action on class sizes and funding, but threats of chaos in the classroom will not materialise. A prolonged and damaging strike like that of the mid-Eighties is not a prospect.

But teachers' reluctance to embark on more strikes and boycotts is not mainly the result of Mrs Shephard's undoubted public relations skills. It is the result of nearly seven years in which almost every aspect of school life has been turned upside down. Teachers have had to implement the most sweeping educational reforms for nearly half a century for a Government that has changed its mind from one year to the next about what it wanted. The peace in the classrooms is the peace of exhaustion rather than that of compliance.

The limit of Mrs Shephard's achievement was summed up by Peter Smith, ATL's general secretary, who compared her to John Patten, her predecessor, with the remark that "a charm offensive is only marginally better than offensive charm". His members made it clear that they are still very angry.

For the policies have not changed. Mrs Shephard has said a lot but done little. That, perhaps, is her brief. Teachers may not want more change, but they believe that the Government has introduced a new inspection system which is punitive rather than constructive, that league tables that take no account of schools' intakes are grossly unfair, and that Government's policies have increased divisions between schools. They resent the extra funds offered to schools to persuade them to opt out of local authority control and the upheaval caused by politicians who laid down a national curriculum and then rewrote the lot in the space of five years.

Above all, they believe that this year's funding cuts are as damaging to education as anything else the Government has done. They are grateful to Mrs Shephard for fighting for more money, but they know that this year, at least, she has lost. As Mr McAvoy put it yesterday, "Mrs Shephard has said that she wants to increase teachers' confidence. The Government has a tremendous task to build that confidence when it has refused to fund this year's teachers' pay award."

Teachers will continue to fight alongside parents and governors against the cuts in an alliance which has already rattled the Government. In some areas, they have shown their frustration by half- or one-day strike action. The issue of class size, about which many parents feel strongly, may cement the alliance further as teachers are made redundant and schools lose staff through natural wastage.

Can the teachers be pacified? Mrs Shephard asked head teachers to help her by providing evidence that the cuts were biting. Both she and the Prime Minister have hinted that there may be more money for education next year. But the increase will have to be significant and the battles against Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the tax cutters in Cabinet have yet to be won.

Even a decision to fund next year's teachers' pay award and provide more for school buildings would not buy teachers' support. In the 1979 general election, which brought Margaret Thatcher's government to power, around a third of teachers voted Conservative. The proportion of the profession prepared to back the Government has been dwindling ever since. Whatever Mrs Shephard and her colleagues do now, the chances that they can win over a group they have chosen to denigrate for most of their period in office are remote in the extreme. It is too late.