by RAY FLEMING
THE rejection by Charles Clarke, Britain's Education Minister, of an invitation to address the annual conference of the National Union of Teachers this weekend, was couched in the rudest possible terms: “I have better things to do”, he said. Yesterday the conference responded in kind to Mr Clarke's rebuff by voting to hold a ballot on strike action over the government's proposals to introduce “teaching assistants” to schools. The NUT believes that the proposals are the thin edge of a wedge to use less-qualified assistants in place of teachers and that pupils will suffer in consequence. This is a long-running dispute which the NUT is now fighting alone since the other leading teachers' unions have agreed to the government's plans.

The NUT is Britain's largest teaching union with 253'000 members. Although it is true that its annual conference has not always set a good example in behaviour - some delegates roughed-up David Blunkett when he was Shadow Education Minister in 1995 the fact remains that this union represents the mainstream of teachers and should be respected accordingly. It is extraordinary that Charles Clarke, who is often referred to as a “bruiser”, should be unwilling to address the NUT conference simply because the union is in fundamental disagreement with him over teaching assistants. What “better things” has Mr Clarke to do this weekend than exchange ideas with the representatives of those who teach the nation's children?

The general secretary of the NUT, Doug McAvoy, retires this year after five years in the job during which period the union's membership has risen by one-third. Yet he is a disappointed man, reflecting that “not even the Tories” cold-shouldered his union as Labour has done.

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