The Journal of Lynton Charles, Deputy Minister without Portfolio

Good Friday The teachers are in town, calloo-callay. One of the inestimable advantages of having a constituency that boasts a large conference centre is that, from time to time, one or other of the dozen or so school unions descends for its annual whinge.

This weekend it is the Association of School Teachers of England and Wales (ASTEW), which is either the largest, the second largest or the third largest, depending on whether you believe them, the NUT or the NAS/UWT. Certainly consumer choice came to the teaching profession long before it was generally available to the rest of us.

It's funny, but while I am a convert to the benefits of competition in most walks of life, the teaching profession does not provide an encouraging example. After all, the one thing that each union must do is to prove to would-be members that it is in some way superior to and different from its rivals - otherwise, why bother? This means that if teachers are, say, a bit bothered by a government initiative (which, being a conservative bunch, they often are), then all the unions feel forced to outdo each other in condemning it, suggesting that it is the work of the Devil and that it must be resisted by one-day strikes, week-long stoppages, indefinite industrial action, self-immolation in selected playgrounds, and so on. Until, of course, one of the unions reckons that the only way to be really different in such a militant environment is to go all reasonable and to negotiate. Thus punctured, the Lilo of indignation on which the profession has been floating gradually subsides.

Strangely, because this makes the business of dealing with the unions completely impossible, the task of government is somehow easier. We know that whatever we do will be wrong in their eyes and that they will go after us until, for reasons unconnected with the proposals themselves, one of them reluctantly agrees. So, as a consequence, we cannot take too much notice of them.

Which, in turn, encourages us to meddle continuously with the business of teaching. Since we can never trust what the unions say, there is no one to stop us coming up with lots and lots of fantastic schemes, each one more perfectly targeted on some educational deficiency than the last. Literacy hours, numeracy hours, homework clubs, superteachers, citizenship, appraisal, value-added league-tables, specialist schools, parent ballots, naming and shaming, education action zones and a few dozen more. There's a whole unit at No 10, led by a 25 year old whose entire job is to think up a scheme a week and then sell it to Blind Lemon Blunkett. If the teaching unions got their act together, it wouldn't last a week.

Saturday I welcome ASTEW to our beautiful town and magnificent conference centre - having first run the gauntlet of the Socialist Workers' Teachers' Organisation, shouting: "Bring back the real Tories" (and other, rather more vulgar slogans). One of the most vituperative, clad in denim jacket, his features contorted with dislike, aims a massive spit at me, which narrowly misses, but which lands on Starbuck's rather expensive new shoes. With a shock I recognise this person as being a senior teacher at the twins' school. Is this really the kind of individual who is instructing my kids in citizenship? I shudder.

After my speech, which is met by catcalls, I stop for a cup of tea with members of the ASTEW executive. They all assault me for the failings of the government. Do I not know that I am demoralising the profession by suggesting that there are good and bad teachers? Is it not obvious that they should all be paid more, regardless of how incompetent they may be? I listen and nod sagely, while vengefully dreaming up a few new schemes of my own to pass on to the Young Turks in Downing Street.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Judge the US by deeds, not words