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Leading Article: Teachers must be led, not driven

TEACHERS behaved badly on cue yesterday. The National Union of Teachers' annual conference usually witnesses behaviour which if spotted in school would call for reproof and perhaps even exclusion; and we were not let down during David Blunkett's visit. A fraction of this union's membership still belongs to far-left organisations (though quite what Trotskyist means these days is hard to grasp). It is also sadly true that the militants and hecklers are concentrated in precisely those schools in deprived areas which most need imagination, dedication, skill, perseverance, experiment ... and money. If only the NUT could occasionally raise its collective head and grasp just how strong a negotiating case there now is for educational investment.

The bad boys and girls at the back of the class yesterday are a problem. They represent those teachers - their numbers may run into the thousands - who are never going to sign up to the schools crusade the Government hopes to conduct. Their attitudes are sour, their mentality negative, their politics antediluvian. Some are archetypal Sixties recruits to the schools who in their teaching methods as in their politics belong in William Tyndale - meaning they fail to see that parents do wish their children to be formally educated, to reach identifiable levels of attainment and to be subject to discipline while going about it. Railing about injustice in society at large can never absolve teachers in state schools from their principal obligation of equipping their children with skills and attitudes to cope with, even succeed in, the world as it is - which means the job markets of Hackney, inner Manchester, Handsworth, Gateshead and Hull.

Yet most teachers, most members of the NUT, are biddable. That surely is the main reason David Blunkett is in Blackpool. He sees that the Government's plans can succeed only if teachers respond. It is a hearts and minds job. Too often his colleagues - notoriously Stephen Byers, sometimes the Prime Minister himself - give the impression they would love, like the Ofsted chief Chris Woodhead, to subject the profession to carpet bombing. But good teaching is not something a thug can produce; teachers cannot be brutalised into imaginative performance in the classroom. There have to be some sticks, yes, but the Government ought to have a ready supply of carrots, too. Education action zones are a case in point. If the Government is sincere about treating its plan as an experiment (in which case it would be good to hear more about how data is going to be collected and appraised) these could be an exciting alternative to local education authorities. Peter Smith of the Association of Lecturers and Teachers is doing the right thing - getting in there at the birth. The NUT's job is to secure for its members the best deal and that must mean incentives to performance, bonuses for improvement - in other words, money. The Government too often, like its predecessor, seems to believe change can be had on the cheap. It cannot. Better behaviour has to be bought. The Government, like its predecessor, is surely right to object to across-the-broad increases, but it must go further in building up the image and reality of high-grade teachers who are highly paid.

With its welcome concession over paperwork, the Government seems belatedly to be realising just how much it is asking of teachers - all those measures of performance of a kind few other professions are subjected to. It has to recognise a paradox, too. The Government, rightly, wants teachers to become more professional, meaning more dedicated, self-motivating, reliable. Whatever the NUT says, a General Teaching Council is the right way forward. But that means teachers becoming more autonomous. Only yesterday we had the health minister Alan Milward requiring health trusts to impose tighter quality controls on medical professionals because their autonomy leads to the elevation of self- or group-interest above that of the patient. David Blunkett says his requirement of a "literacy hour" is non-negotiable - local circumstance or professional judgement be hanged. Teachers are entitled to respond that if they are treated like shopfloor employees subject to central diktat, they will behave like them, too.

Unless they can be persuaded. The reason David Blunkett has to endure the Eastertime brickbats, and will again next year and the year after, is that there can be no revolution in attitudes towards attainment or school organisation unless the ordinary teacher is convinced, and that is a task requiring the political arts. The Government is trying to change recruitment and perhaps, one day, school teaching will attract a new class of people whose commitment to the highest standards can be relied upon (which incidentally will require a big increase in the salary bill). But for the meantime it is members of the NUT, together with the NAS-UWT and the other unions, who need to be cajoled, seduced and above all led in ways which the Doug McAvoys of this world can never dream of.