At times it bordered on a mass nervous breakdown. Emotions spilled out.
By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent
One by one they came forward, bared their souls, choked back the tears, appealed for help, to be rewarded with a metaphorical group hug from fellow sufferers.
No, this was not the Cabinet reshuffle nor the Harrogate branch of Alcoholics Anonymous.
This was the annual conference of the National Association of Head Teachers.
I have been attending head teachers' conferences for 17 years. I have never seen one quite like this.
No government minister was there to witness it. That is a shame, as something serious is happening amongst school leaders.
The new Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, should ask for reports on the head teachers' conference. He now has a chance to do what his predecessor chose not to attempt: re-build bridges with the association that represents the majority of school leaders.
The warning signs were there from the start. At the opening press conference, when the union leadership was publicising a survey revealing the problem of head teacher recruitment, the man from The Times asked why so few people wanted to become heads.
The head teachers were not opposed to everything, they simply felt they were paying too high a price for school reforms
It opened the floodgates. There were about a dozen head teachers sitting amongst the journalists in the audience.
They almost fell over one another in their eagerness to answer the question. As the union leadership looked on, the press conference was very effectively hijacked by grass-roots head teachers.
It was almost therapy. Each poured out a story of woe. The ingredients were the same: excessive workload, stress, pressure, risks of failure, money worries, the threat of Ofsted, demands from government, difficulties with parents.
Interestingly, none of them complained about the pupils. Indeed, despite the horrors they listed, all insisted they loved the job.
It was like a marriage guidance session: they had fallen for teaching years ago but over the years the daily niggles had grown into almost unbearable pressures. They could neither live with, nor without, headship.
This set the tone for the conference. Ofsted's new short, sharp inspection regime was berated for failing to give a full picture of the problems schools had to overcome. League tables were condemned for their negative effect on teaching.
The head teachers were not opposed to everything, they simply felt they were paying too high a price for school reforms.
So the workload reforms were welcomed for reducing the burden on classroom teachers but criticised for adding a further strain to the head teachers' responsibility to find someone to put in front of each class.
Some saw value in the "extended school" idea, which will see schools in England opening from 8am until 6pm with extra-curricula activities, but felt too much of the burden and responsibility was falling on one person: the head teacher.
Threat to tables
Their biggest bugbear, though, was the use of school tests for league tables. This is not a new complaint but, this time, the frustrations over everything else pushed them over the edge.
So, the NAHT's general secretary, Mick Brookes, caught the mood of his conference when he said his members were "sick to the back teeth" of talking and were now ready for "action".
The conference voted to press the government to scrap league tables "without delay". The NAHT will now seek to work with the other unions, and with parents, to stop next year's tests being used for league tables.
Mr Brookes talked about the possibility of direct action with head teachers refusing to send in the test results next year.
He also suggested heads might adopt a tactic he had used once, namely inviting parents to send their children into school late on test days. If a sufficient number are late the test results become invalid for league tables.
Was all this just the heady rhetoric of annual conference? Will head teachers emerge from this group therapy session strengthened for the rest of the year?
I think there was more to it than just that. The head teachers' conference is not like its classroom teachers' counterpart, the NUT. The latter tends to be well to the left of its wider membership and, year in year out, makes calls for industrial action that are rarely followed through.
The NAHT conference, by contrast, is less politically involved than many NUT delegates. It does not debate Iraq or trade union laws. It sticks to educational issues.
Unlike the NUT, which called for opposition to every government policy from city academies to trust schools, the NAHT barely discussed topical political issues such as the sponsorship of academies.
So the government would be wrong to dismiss this as political posturing.
These head teachers looked exhausted. They have borne the brunt of introducing enormous change. In smaller primary schools, they usually carry the burden of leadership alone, many of them teaching classes for much of the week.
It is ironic that just as the problems of teacher recruitment are easing in all but a few specialist areas, the problem of head teacher recruitment is growing.
Too many senior teachers and deputy heads have decided the extra stress is not worth the money (and generally speaking the money is not bad).
The cracks began to show when the head teachers left the so-called "social partnership" with government. The largest head teachers' association and the largest teachers' union (the NUT) are now both outside this partnership with government.
The NAHT has been amazed at the response of the Department for Education and Skills, claiming it has effectively frozen the union out of all government discussions, refusing even to allow civil servants to attend its annual conference.
This is a big change from just over a year ago when the government highly valued the advice of the former NAHT leader, David Hart (now Sir David). He may have helped keep a lid on the frustrations and anger of many head teachers, believing it was better to assert quiet pressure from the inside.
Now, though, the pressure on government will be expressed more publicly. The question the new Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, needs to ponder is this: is that pressure also about to spill out into schools and will it involve action rather than just words?
The prime minister has often acknowledged that the government needs head teachers to make its reforms work. That is why he has twice addressed NAHT conferences.
But those days of mutual respect are long gone. That is bad news for both sides.
The NAHT saw Ruth Kelly's failure to address their conference as a "snub".
Alan Johnson might want to insert the date of next year's conference in his new ministerial diary right now.
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