End of an era

Doug McAvoy, who is retiring as general secretary of the biggest teachers' union, arouses strong passions. Richard Garner assesses his 15-year reign
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Doug McAvoy's departure as the boss of the biggest education union marks the end of an era. For a whole generation, the portly former PE teacher has held sway at the National Union of Teachers (NUT), 14 as deputy general secretary and 15 as general secretary. Many hope that his retirement will lead to a sea change in relations between the biggest teachers' union and the Government that in recent years have hit an all time low.

Tomorrow, McAvoy will face his last NUT annual conference in Harrogate. He will be missed by his friends in the trade union for his canny manoeuvring and, above all, for his tough negotiating skills. But the Education Secretary Charles Clarke is less likely to mourn his passing, and many of his colleagues in the other teaching unions will breathe a sigh of relief. They - and the Government - write him off as obstructionist. Indeed, one union leader, asked to sum up McAvoy's reign, says: "I can't think of anything nice to say about him."

The man may provoke strong antagonism, but that ignores the fact that he rescued the NUT from the prospect of financial oblivion and leaves the union with a healthy membership - up by nearly 50 per cent since he took office at the tail end of a bitter pay dispute in 1988. Even his opponents in the union recognise that he has been one of the most outstanding negotiators the NUT has ever had. "I don't think there is anybody in the union who really approaches him," says one veteran left-winger.

McAvoy's most outstanding quality is his toughness. He is frightened of no one, and gives as good as he gets. "What amazes me about Doug is his enormous energy," says another NUT leader. "Whoever it is, even the Secretary of State, can't threaten him. He stands his ground, argues his case and more often than not decides at the end of the day: 'Bugger it, I'm right.'"

A former teacher from Newcastle and deputy to Fred Jarvis before succeeding to the top job, McAvoy cut his teeth on the damaging and high-profile teachers' pay disputes of the late Eighties. For much of that time, Jarvis was either off work through injury or working as the TUC president. That meant McAvoy presided over two years of dramatic industrial action that culminated in Mrs Thatcher's Conservative government stripping teachers of their negotiating powers and setting up an independent pay review body.

The industrial action was so disruptive and drawn out that the Conservative leader of the local authority employers, Philip Merridale, was moved to compare McAvoy with the miners' union leader. He was Arthur Scargill's "Little Sir Echo", he said.

That epithet was misleading. McAvoy may have been intensely irritating to employers and have run a campaign that was deeply unpopular with parents, but he was, unlike Scargill, perfectly able to compromise. On seizing the opportunity to go for the top job in the NUT, he campaigned on a modernising ticketbecause he saw that the militant image of the union was off-putting to potential recruits. The union was facing a financial crisis and membership was at its lowest for years. It had dropped to 183,000, which represents a minority of the teaching profession.

"There was a very real danger that the Conservatives would try and break the union," says one union source. "No one can deny that Doug prevented that from happening." Membership now stands at a healthy 267,000 - although whether that is as a result of attempts to "modernise" the union is open to debate. It is more likely that teachers have joined the NUT because of the recent antagonism that McAvoy has shown to the Government's workload agreement and the SAT tests.

The next general secretary will find it impossible to rid the union of a strike-happy image. That's because each year at the Easter conference the union's delegates are wont to pass five or six motions calling for industrial action.

All of which makes the NUT a very tricky union to run. McAvoy has made a good fist of it, particularly in the early years, though perhaps not recently, according to David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, the only surviving union leader to predate McAvoy on the scene. "I think it's the most difficult job in teacher trade unionism, and in many ways - until the last couple of years - Doug has achieved an awful lot in terms of increasing the union's membership," says Hart. But, he adds: "As a result of refusing to sign the workload agreement, [Doug] has been isolated."

McAvoy is convinced that he was right to oppose the workload agreement, which allows classroom assistants to take lessons, according to his colleagues. He has taken a stand on the principle of not allowing teaching standards to be jeopardised.

However, the same friends say he is a little dismayed that relations between the NUT and the Government have turned so sour. McAvoy became disillusioned with New Labour quite early on in Blair's premiership, disliking the former Education Secretary David Blunkett's decision to name and shame failing schools. After that there was good rapport with Blunkett's successor, Estelle Morris, although the NUT felt that she was being controlled too much by Downing Street.

McAvoy was optimistic about Clarke's appointment, but the relationship soon took a turn for the worse. When asked by The Independent to say how Clarke had done in his first year of office, McAvoy replied: "We welcomed Charles Clarke's appointment but I am now persuaded... we can all make mistakes." Hardly a ringing endorsement of the man.

If McAvoy wanted to establish a decent relationship with the Education Secretary, the NUT decision to pull out of the workload agreement put a stop to that. For the second year in a row Clarke will not be addressing the NUT conference, and he has also frozen the union out of all discussions with ministers.

Many people now believe the measure of McAvoy's successor will be whether he can get the union back into the big tent and influence the Government.

THE RACE FOR THE LEADERSHIP: WHO WILL TAKE OVER THE TOP JOB AT THE NUT?

Four men are battling to take over Doug McAvoy's mantle when he retires on 28 June, and the fiercest fight is between Steve Sinnott, the deputy general secretary, and John Bangs, the head of education.

Sinnott is winning support from the largest number of NUT branches, with 60 prepared to nominate him for the post, twice as many as any of his rivals. But Bangs may be better known on the national stage.

Politically, there would appear to be little difference between Sinnott and Bangs. Both are on the centre-left of the union.

The two are joined in the fray by two representatives from the hard left. One is Ian Murch, a Bradford teacher, a former union treasurer and a leading light of one of two main far-left groupings at conference, the Campaign for a Democratic and Fighting Union. The other is Martin Powell-Davies, a Lewisham science teacher and member of the Socialist Teachers' Alliance.

Most observers believe Murch is the more serious challenger. Friends of Sinnott talk about Murch being the main danger to their man, while observers on the hard left believe the result is too close to call between the three. The Bangs camp, however, believes it will be a straight fight between their choice and Sinnott.

The election is being conducted on the single transferable vote system, so the candidate with the lowest poll falls off the ballot paper after the first count. That candidate's second preference votes are then distributed among the others.Powell-Davies would be the obvious person to lose out on the first round. Bangs is then expected pick up more hard-left second or third preference votes than Sinnott.

The result is difficult to predict - except to say that McAvoy's successor is bound to be a man in a union where the majority of members are women.

r.garner@independent.co.uk

Comments