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Sunday, 31 March, 2002, 12:24 GMT 13:24 UK
Tradition of minister baiting lives on
Teachers spell out their message to Estelle Morris

If the baiting of education ministers ever became an official sport, the National Union of Teachers' conference would take the gold medal annually.

It has become an Easter bank holiday tradition to see an angry minister being jeered and heckled by teachers who seem to enjoy taking a break from being the ones at the front of the class.

This year's encounter saw the Education Secretary Estelle Morris taking on the wrath of teachers, stung by her warning that they should not take industrial action in their campaign for a 35-hour week.

There were jeers, heckles, slow handclaps and delegates held up giant letters that spelt out the word "Strike".

This had all taken some planning. The row of protestors who started the slow handclapping had briefly toyed with a chant, then considered a walk-out and had then said that they would all do their own thing.

'Go on Rachel, do another one'

This turned out to be a slow hand-clap, which was taken up by almost nobody else - and they stopped when other delegates started shouting at them.

Heckling took a similar route, with a voluble delegate being urged by a less forthcoming colleague - "go on Rachel, do another one", at which point Rachel shouted "what about teacher shortages?" And so on.

But cynics might also have said that the education secretary's attack on teachers was just as stage managed.

Her tough talking message had been so widely-trailed in advance by her spin doctor, that the substance of her speech was largely ignored - until she reached the juicy stuff about how teachers should not be striking.

And on cue, the heckling began. Conference traditionalists will have enjoyed this Punch and Judy show.

But they would have been disappointed to see no evidence this year of a highly-specialised form of protest, in which delegates pointedly read newspapers throughout a speech, showing the speaker a sea of sports pages.

Folk ritual

The whole performance might be better seen as just that, a performance, like an ancient folk ritual the meaning of which has been lost in the mists of time.

For instance, talk of strike action is usually more symbolic than real. What is being proposed is not a walk-out, but a boycott of paperwork, possibly in the autumn.

Even if there is a vote for something more radical, it's quite possible that it will never actually happen. There was a vote in support of industrial action on Saturday morning, and there will be probably more to follow.

But past experience suggests that headlines about striking teachers would be premature.

The machinations between left and right wings of the union have more twists and turns than a seaside dodgem car - and the conference debates are often more about internal schisms than setting policy.

So the "decisions" of conference to take action are often in practice less definite than the cheering suggests.

Union anoraks

It would also be wrong to caricature the NUT conference as being dominated by militant firebrands.

Because the weekend attracts a remarkably varied group of people, ranging from the smartly-dressed ambitious career teachers to the union anoraks who seem obsessed with standing orders and amendments to incomprehensible motions.

Alongside the stalls selling Che Guevara T-shirts and the badges for Cuba, there are whiskery old teachers who probably knew Mr Chips when he was newly-qualified.

If you ever wondered what happened to the guys who used to sell ultra-left newspapers outside your student union, they're probably here as well.


Throw into this mix a sprinkling of politicians, government officials, local authority wheelers and dealers, visitors from teachers' unions overseas, and even a few journalists, and it's not quite the grim-faced event that the headlines might suggest.

And looking down upon it all is the union's general secretary, Doug McAvoy, a kind of Buddha with sound-bites, who when the occasion demands shares his rather cryptic thoughts with the conference.

For years this very reasonable man has been given an Easter weekend bashing by his own left-wing delegates and by the right-wing press, and each year he has to steer the conference away from too many improbable decisions and PR own-goals.

While political conferences are now stage-managed photo-opportunities, his conference is still capable of embarrassing the union leadership.

When he reads the agenda, with its multiple strike threats and the wilder motions on issues such as bombing Iraq, you imagine he must have very mixed feelings about the Easter conference.

Almost as mixed as the education ministers despatched each year for a confrontation that owes as much to pantomime as to politics.

See also:

30 Mar 02 | UK Education
30 Mar 02 | UK Education
14 Apr 01 | UK Education
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