Conor Ryan: End this unholy ritual at Easter

The NUT's barracking of Estelle Morris damages teachers' image and puts people off joining the profession

Thursday 04 April 2002 00:00
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The clocks went forward on Sunday. But not for the National Union of Teachers. The annual combination of militant minister-baiting and ministerial tough talking played out by the sea again. And the slow handclaps and jeers in Bournemouth did the teachers' cause no good whatsoever.

Such is the weary predictability of these events that there would undoubtedly have been great media disappointment if the NUT simply offered polite applause. But they needn't worry: there are always some in the audience to confirm the stereotype.

Nor does the issue matter: this year teachers got a good pay increase, with last year's gripes about retention tackled. Teachers with five years' experience can earn £28,000 from September, compared with £19,000 five years ago. Schools have been better funded than for some decades. Recruitment has been rising too.

But the unions still want to turn performance-related pay into incremental rises for all and to impose a rigid 35-hour working week on every school, without losing any of their long holidays. It was hardly surprising that Estelle Morris's spinners briefed the press in Bournemouth that she would tell the assembled activists that industrial action could only harm teachers' professional image. True to form, the NUT's general secretary, Doug McAvoy, popped up on Saturday's Today programme on the BBC oozing sweet reasonableness, trying to play down expectations – to little avail.

Morris knows that NUT militancy does nothing to hurt her own image as a tough talker who is not pushed around by vested interests – though if the teachers are still grumbling after the last two spending reviews, the Treasury will hardly warm towards further largesse. Teachers' unions can be teachers' worst enemies.

I was with David Blunkett when he attended his first NUT conference seven years ago. He had just made the outrageous suggestion that failing schools should be turned around or closed (a policy that later rescued more than 750 failing schools). We knew things could be tough at the NUT, but never realised exactly how.

In the event, a group of chanting Trotskyists and TV crews gathered at the entrance of the Blackpool Winter Gardens. When they saw the shadow Education Secretary, they chased us into a small office (later called a "cupboard") where an appalled McAvoy apologised and took about 20 minutes to clear the mob.

It became a defining moment for Labour's education policy, confirming everybody's prejudices about the NUT while allowing Blunkett to explain his plans for higher school standards more widely than ever. No wonder Gillian Shephard, then the Education Secretary, sought (but failed to get) similar treatment the following year.

McAvoy rightly argues that the militants started to lose their influence after 1995. But their visual and vocal presence still confirms every parent's prejudice, and also does more than any other single event to put potential teachers off joining the profession (something the NUT unconvincingly claims to want).

In part the problem is that the conference is held over the Easter weekend, when news is usually thin (this year the Middle East conflict and the death of the Queen Mother make it an exception). The moderate mainstream is also poorly represented, preferring family holidays to debating the 35-hour week.

Teachers do have a point on workload: up to 10 hours a week could be cut with more support staff and fewer after-hours meetings. And more needs to be done on London living costs. But their case would be more effective without the outmoded trappings of Labour Party conferences of the Seventies – after all, Morris is battling for that cash too. Most teachers want to see a single union. If it puts an end to this Easter ritual, who can blame them?

The writer was political adviser to David Blunkett from 1993 to 2001

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