Chris Keates: The gentle face of trade unionism

Chris Keates, head of the NASUWT, has made enemies by accepting the teachers' workload agreement. Befriending the Government benefits her members, she tells Richard Garner

Chris Keates is changing the face of education trade unionism. Of the leaders of the 10 biggest TUC-affiliated unions, she is the only woman, and is quietly altering the way that teaching unions behave.

Where once they were vying to see who could out-macho the other at Easter conference season, now they are getting into bed with the Government. Keates, the boss of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, whose conference started on Tuesday, epitomises the new softly, softly approach that is in direct contrast to that of one of her predecessors, Nigel de Gruchy.

For her, a cosy relationship with ministers is the way to get what you want. By accepting the Government's workload agreement giving teachers 10 per cent of time off for marking and preparation, she has won improved conditions for her members, she believes, and some further concessions. The biggest teachers' union, the National Union of Teachers, by contrast, is still being frozen out by ministers.

The rapprochement between the NASUWT and the Government has meant an end to the union's firebrand image. Keates's predecessor-but-one, De Gruchy, used to describe strike action against unruly pupils as "industrial action with a halo". In other words, the strikes were OK because the action was being taken against disruptive children. In another memorable remark, he referred to the long summer holidays as "the last perk of the teaching profession". But perhaps his most infamous comment was about "pig-ignorant peasants", taken to be a reference to classroom assistants being allowed to cover for teachers.

Now the NASUWT is in "social partnership" with the Government, agreeing not to criticise them in public over the workload agreement and seeking to influence ministers before decisions are made.

As a result, Keates, whose earlier years were peppered with pithy soundbites similar to De Gruchy's, has become the model of respectability - a woman with whom the Government can do business.

She lists what she believes are the major successes of her new approach. First, she can check that schools are allowing teachers to take 10 per cent of time off to do the marking and preparation needed. If she finds they aren't, ministers take her side rather than listening to the problems that schools or local authorities have in delivering the agreement.

There are still about two per cent of schools that have not given teachers the time off that has been agreed, she thinks. But she adds - with some force - that teachers in the other 98 per cent would never have got the time off if the agreement had not been signed.

Second, a fast-track system has been agreed between the teacher unions and the Government to deal with complaints of abuse or assault against teachers. That came about because of the good relations engendered by cooperation over the workload agreement, Keates believes. Previously it could take up to two years for a suspended teacher to get back to work after it was discovered that an allegation against them was false. By that time they might have been too traumatised to return to the classroom.

There is a third good result arising from the collaborative approach, she says. Keates is in negotiation over new guidance to schools and local authorities on school trips. She is seeking two safeguards: to stop local authorities washing their hands of staff if something goes wrong, and guidelines on the kinds of places that are not too dangerous for children to visit.

"School trips are to increasingly exotic locations," she says. "Consequently there is an increase in the level of risk. It may be a case of persuading schools that, while a day out for everyone at Alton Towers may be fun, it may not be the best choice for an outing - either educationally or in terms of risk." The signs are that the union will get what it wants over school trips. As a result, it will review its advice to members - which at present is to support them if they refuse to accompany school trips.

Keates is not popular with some of her fellow teacher union leaders for the way that she has sought to maximise her influence with ministers through sticking firmly to the agreement.

She does have their respect, however. One describes her as a "ferocious negotiator" who still has close links to her grass roots, and who has done an "extremely effective" job as general secretary.

It should be noted that the NASUWT is not alone in signing up to the social partnership. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the Professional Association of Teachers and the Association of School and College Leaders - representing secondary school heads - are all in there, too. The NUT is the one that has been implacably opposed, saying that it is against the idea of untrained classroom assistants taking lessons.

The National Association of Head Teachers is also outside the big tent, claiming that the agreement is inadequately funded and has increased heads' workload by giving teachers more time away from the classroom.

The NUT argues that it has been able to improve the lot of teachers even though it is outside the agreement, most notably by getting ministers to include a new legal right for teachers to discipline a child in the new education legislation, something it had campaigned for.

Steve Sinnott, the NUT general secretary, also claims that other unions have over-exaggerated the achievements of the social partnership."The 10 per cent off from the classroom was as a result of joint industrial action by the NUT, NASUWT and ATL before the agreement, rather than anything achieved in negotiations afterwards," he insists.

The NASUWT is being rewarded this year for its steadfastness with a visit by the Secretary of State for Education, Ruth Kelly, to its annual conference in Birmingham today. It will be the only teachers' union conference she addresses this Easter.

Keates concedes that her stance has not made her popular within the NUT hierarchy. Some senior NUT managers are said to be almost apoplectic at the mention of her name. Sinnott, a close ally of hers when both were deputy general secretaries of their respective unions, went out of his way to compare her unfavourably with her predecessor Eamonn O'Kane at a recent TUC conference, she says.

Using more diplomatic language than some of her opponents, she describes relationships between the unions at national level as "quite tense and strained". Her relationship with Sinnott - "warm" last year when both were approaching their first annual union conferences - is now "cordial", she says.

When he in turn is asked about his relationship with Keates, Sinnott says the two still have a "good" relationship. But, he says, he would like her to "lighten up" in considering how the two unions could work more closely together.

Keates also acknowledges that there are those in her own union who criticise the leadership's stance. "The national executive has been absolutely solid," she says. "The majority of the activists have been absolutely solid. In any union, there is always a minority hankering and yearning for the past where you were simply opposing everything. It is much easier - you don't have to justify your decision, you don't have to articulate the complexities."

Articulating the complexities is not something you would have expected to hear from the lips of De Gruchy. It is worth remembering, however, that he was the architect of the policy that the union is now adopting, believing that the future lay in social partnership with the government of the day rather than in open confrontation.

In truth, he was never as confrontational as some of his soundbites might have suggested. Keates was his protégé and won promotion from her post as general secretary of the union's Birmingham branch under his leadership.

In her earlier days she shot from the lip, not from the hip, in much the same manner as De Gruchy - even though Les Lawrence, the Conservative chairman of the city council's education committee, became her partner during that time. He is now the chairman of the children's services committee of the Local Government Association, thus ensuring that Keates still has a foot in both local and government circles.

Whether De Gruchy could have kept quiet and not criticised the Government over the teachers' contract for two years in the same way that Keates has managed, is, however, open to conjecture. Her critics suspect not. But Keates is convinced that her constructive approach has resulted in a better deal for her members and a profile that will stand the union in good stead in the future.

A life in brief

Age: 54
Education: Thistley Hough Girls' School, Stoke-on-Trent.
Archaeology and history degree, Leicester University, PGCE, Birmingham University
Family: Two children, a daughter, 21, and a son, 14.
Employment: 1974-94: Humanities teacher at two Birmingham comprehensives.
1994-8: Advisory teacher, Birmingham.
1998-2001: Assistant secretary, National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers.
2001-4: Deputy general secretary.
2005?: General secretary. She is the only woman general secretary of any of the 10 largest unions within the TUC. RG

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