Conor Ryan: Can the NUT be saved from itself?

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The Independent Online

Tim Yeo, the Tory health and education spokesman, said he couldn't think of anything better to do at Easter than spend it with the National Union of Teachers at their annual conference. His enthusiasm was rewarded with traditional rudeness by a quarter of NUT delegates at Harrogate, who walked out of his speech.

Tim Yeo, the Tory health and education spokesman, said he couldn't think of anything better to do at Easter than spend it with the National Union of Teachers at their annual conference. His enthusiasm was rewarded with traditional rudeness by a quarter of NUT delegates at Harrogate, who walked out of his speech.

Mr Yeo was rebuking education secretary Charles Clarke's decision to spend the weekend with his family. Yet Clarke was far more in tune with ordinary teachers. The NUT conference has never had much to do with their lives and this year's debates were no different. Delegates threatened pointless strikes, this time because of the government's efforts to reduce their workload by giving them more free time to prepare for lessons away from the classroom.

In such circumstances, it was bizarre to hear Doug McAvoy, the NUT's general secretary since 1989, accuse Clarke of being "childish" for ignoring him. Pots and darkened kettles spring to mind. McAvoy is stepping down this year, so such bitterness may reflect his unhappy legacy. The union's relations with the Labour government have never been lower, and that is a fault of his leadership. He opposed the performance pay regime, which has seen members' salaries rise rapidly, and he has kept insisting that employing extra secretaries and teaching assistants are part of a fiendish plot to create "classes of 60".

NUT spin doctors point to their members' strike-free record under McAvoy. They boast that they have grown as Britain's biggest teaching union. But they have without doubt also become the least relevant. With no influence over national education policy, they resemble Citizen Smith's Tooting Popular Front rather than a union representing a quarter of a million mainly moderate middle-class professionals. Their ostensibly moderate general secretary may thwart the ludicrous strike calls, yet he has often been ready to embrace their often dotty view of the world.

So, the election of a new NUT general secretary in June should be an important event which could enable classroom teachers to reclaim their union. Nominations close early next month and four candidates have already declared themselves. Martin Powell-Davies and Ian Murch are the left-wing outsiders (though if too few teachers vote, anything is possible). The main contenders are NUT deputy general secretary Steve Sinnott and assistant secretary John Bangs. Both have glossy websites, yet there is little to inspire. Abolish inspections, testing and performance pay, says Sinnott, though they have made schools better and teachers better off. Bangs may occasionally have used his role as research officer to challenge some sacred shibboleths (though usually well after everybody else had done so), but he shows little sign of doing so on his website.

The two are most excited over whether or not the NUT should merge with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the National Association of Schoolmasters / Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) should merge into one big union. "No one will work harder than I to achieve the Union's historic objective of unity," says Sinnott. "I believe strongly in the establishment of a single association to represent all teachers," adds Bangs. Yet neither has anything new to say about the union's future. They seem to believe that unity should happen on the NUT's terms even if other unions are to join them, despite fear of NUT extremism turning off NASUWT members' support two years ago. There is no overt commitment either to restoring the influence of the NUT with government or to imaginatively considering the huge growth in support staff, the new opportunities provided by performance pay or the impact of new technology on lessons.

But this is the educational environment in which the new general secretary will have to operate. Deep down, both frontrunners probably realise this. The members deserve to be able to vote for a candidate who is prepared to be honest with them about how the National Union of Teachers can become a serious player in the education world. That is, if there is such a candidate.

The writer was political adviser to David Blunkett from 1993 to 2000

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