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Monday, 1 April, 2002, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
Tory heckled in teacher 'bear-pit'
Damian Green
Damian Green: 'root and branch reform of Conservative education policy'

"It is a privilege to be invited to a new bear-pit," said the Conservative education spokesman, Damian Green, addressing the National Union of Teachers' conference in Bournemouth.

But by then hundreds of delegates had already walked out - and a number of those that stayed took the opportunity to shout at him.

Mr Green, the standard bearer of One Nation Toryism in the shadow cabinet, had come to build bridges with teachers.

But his reception, in the tradition of such events, was even more hostile than that received by the Education Secretary Estelle Morris when she visited the conference on Saturday.

This heckling was "not exactly a shock", he said afterwards. "But if people walk out before you even speak they clearly don't want to engage."


And he criticised plans for industrial action by teachers, saying that he "did not approve of action that threatens the education of children and which could see them sent home from school".

But the message he brought to the conference was an attempt to hold out an olive branch to the teaching profession - and he criticised the "strident, lecturing tone" that Estelle Morris seemed to be adopting towards teachers.

"Teachers are not wreckers. They are hard-working professionals who are doing their best under increasingly difficult circumstances," he said.

If in office, he said that he would institute regular meetings between government and the teachers' unions - a practice he had observed in Germany, when on a fact-finding mission with the National Union of Teachers.

Disruptive pupils

And he asserted that schools should have greater powers over exclusions - calling again for the scrapping of appeals panels which can over-rule schools' attempts to remove disruptive pupils.

He also highlighted the problems of schools having to waste money on legal battles over exclusions- citing the case of a school which had to pay 10,000 in legal fees in an appeals battle over a pupil who had been excluded for throwing a chair off the roof.

Mr Green also expressed sympathy for teachers buckling under the weight of paperwork.

He told the conference that if primary head teachers had read all the documents sent to them in April, it would have taken them three and half days.

And he offered some more number-crunching that showed that the paperwork sent to schools over 11 months was a full 900 years worth of solid reading.

'Root and branch'

But while the education secretary is ready to present a new tone, he has still to present new policies.

Although saying that Conservative education policy faced a "root and branch reform", he would not be drawn on which direction it might take.

And speaking to journalists after his speech, he refused to say whether he would formally scrap such policies as school vouchers and free schools, which had appeared at the general election to be as unpopular with parents as with teachers.

Perhaps mindful that his party leader had indicated sympathy for school vouchers, Mr Green turned down numerous attempts to get him to say whether he was for or against the policy.

Mr Green has previously spoken of the need for the Conservative Party to move towards the political centreground - and future policy might be expected to more sympathetic to public services, than free market schemes such as vouchers.

But indicating where the Conservatives might be attacking education legislation currently before Parliament, he said that there would be moves to "protect school sixth forms".

See also:

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