We teachers spend much of our working lives instilling the personal qualities of courtesy and cooperation in young minds. When our General Secretary, Chris Keates, announced that Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education, would be addressing our annual conference, it was met with a combination of incredulity (that she would have the nerve to show her eternally bewildered face) and confusion as to how best to respond to what we already knew from the media would be her declaration of uncompromising reforming zeal.
In the end, the whole charade became predictably cringeworthy, Morgan taking to the lectern to declare that 'the education system is in a much better state that it was five years ago'. Cue howls of laughter from the auditorium. Her response? 'You really should listen to you own achievements'. Now, this is by no means a new tactic on the part of the Tories. They persistently seek to portray their wholesale deregulation of state education as a genuine mission to confer autonomy upon heads and teachers. No mention of the astronomical salaries being paid to the directors of academy trusts while students attend school hungry and mentally strained by the demands of excessive testing and examination.
Like her predecessor, the universally loathed Michael Gove, Morgan made the customary references to the crucial importance of teaching, the difference we make, etc. One wonders, then, why teachers have been subjected to an average 15% pay cut since 2010 and why, if we are held in such high esteem, Morgan and co are so determined to dismantle the national pay and conditions framework that made teaching such an attractive graduate profession before the Coalitiion Government took office. Ultimately, despite the mealy-mouthed declarations of admiration for teachers and her insistence that she wished to work with the NASUWT to improve the status quo, there were two core purposes to Morgan's jaunt to Birmingham, both of which rang loud and clear from that lectern.
First, this was seized upon as a golden opportunity to give the profession a jolly good telling-off. We are, according to Morgan, 'too negative'. We need to 'step up', 'do our bit' and 'stop talking the profession down', she condescendingly proclaimed. It was at this point that I became aware that I was slowly sinking down from my seat, head in hands, along with numerous colleagues. Others looked utterly dumbfounded by what they were hearing. There would be no turning back, no brake applied to the 'reforms' being implemented, including the rush towards the mass academisation of England's schools.
Make no mistake, this was Nicky Morgan's opening gambit in the panto that will be the Conservative leadership contest. Whether it comes in the wake of the impending EU referendum or, as stated by Cameron, at the end of this Parliament, this was a carefully planned manoeuvre on the part of Morgan and her supporters. The objective of her address, patronising chastisement of the teaching profession aside, was to deliver a Thatcher-esque 'The lady is not for turning' monologue, enabling her to return to Tory HQ a self-proclaimed 'union-buster', the minister with the steel to sock it to a trade union on their own turf and the nerve to call its leadership liars to their faces.
Despite the sensationalist headlines, there was no excessive booing or jeering. By and large, those present practised what they preach each day in the classroom. It could have been far, far worse given the transparent intent to incite. Nicky Morgan presented as a deluded ideologue with no grasp on reality; no semblance of recognition of the recruitment and retention crisis poised to cripple the profession; absolutely no acknowledgement of the mental ill health epidemic tarnishing the lives of students and teachers alike. This wasn't about reality. This was about fantasy; one woman's ambition to follow in the footsteps of the 'iron lady'. Teachers are determined that England's schools will not form the collateral damage of one woman's determination to climb the greasy pole to Number 10.