Nigel de Gruchy: The teachers' leader who spoke in sound bites

Nigel de Gruchy has played a prominent role in education politics since 1978. Now, as he retires, Richard Garner looks back on a career dogged by controversy
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The Independent Online

We are witnessing the end of an era. Next week Nigel de Gruchy, the best known teachers' union leader, the man who shoots from the lip rather than the hip, steps down as general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. It is a moment for mourning: Mr de Gruchy, 59, is a larger-than-life character beloved of journalists who is famous for his sound bites. Over the past 24 years he has been a big thorn in the side of government. There is no doubt the world will be a less colourful place when he goes at the end of his union's Easter conference.

Rumour has it that Mr de Gruchy invented sound bites long before politicians learnt to use them. Here are some of the best examples. When his members were working to rule in protest at their hours, he dubbed it "industrial action with a halo". His reasoning was that the ban on administrative duties would mean teachers having more time to do what they were meant to do – teach. When local education authorities had the temerity to consider introducinga six-term year, removing the long summer break in August, he immediately threatened strike action over what he described as "the last perk of the teaching profession".

Then, when the rival National Union of Teachers passed a motion calling for gay and lesbian role models in schools, he replied: "Teachers have enough to concern themselves with, such as making sure pupils master the three Rs, without getting into the three Ss – sex, sex and sex."

Finally, last November, he made his famous "pig-ignorant peasants" remark which journalists took to refer to classroom assistants. It caused a furore, making front-page headlines and being debated endlessly on the radio. Mr de Gruchy denied he was talking about classroom assistants. "I said you could not have pig-ignorant peasants supervising classes, but you needed people of good education with appropriate training," he says now. Unison, the union representing the majority of classroom assistants, saw it differently – although all is sweetness and light now.

In the world of education he is either loved or hated. He irritates the politicans for the same reason as he delights his members – his outspoken articulation of their feelings and his effective campaigns on their behalf. There is no doubt that since taking a full-time job with the union in 1978, he has built the NASUWT into an effective fighting force with more clout than it used to have. Those who dismissed him as lightweight when he started have had to eat their words.

Born and educated in Jersey, he has an economics and philosophy degree from Reading University and – ironically for someone who has never entered party politics – was at university in Paris in 1968 at the time of the student riots.

Mr de Gruchy became a trade-union official by accident. After meeting his American wife, Judy, while he was studying in France, the couple planned to live in the USA. But there were fears that he might be called up to fight in Vietnam. So they decided to come to England – initially for a year – and he got a job as a teacher in south London.

Within a year, he had – as he put it – "opened [his] mouth at a union meeting and become branch secretary". The rest is history. He took up his first full-time union job as assistant secretary of the NASUWT in 1978, and became deputy general secretary in 1983 before becoming the union's leader 12 years ago.

"I was in two minds as to whether to go for it," he says. "The unions had taken such a hammering during the Thatcher years, I wondered – was it worth it? In the end, I remember when I went for the interview I promsied them nothing but blood, sweat, toil and tears."

Having developed links with Conservative MPs, he used them to float the idea of an independent pay-review body for teachers. It didn't take off while Mrs Thatcher was in power, but the Major administration liked it. "We would never say that it's been perfect, but on the other hand it hasn't been too bad on pay," he says. "We've done better than college and university lecturers."

The biggest success of his career was undoubtedly the boycotting of national curriculum assessments and tests in the early 1990s. His union introduced a boycott of the tests for seven- and 11-year-olds, portraying it as an issue of excessive workload and claiming that the tests put too much of an administrative burden on its members. "In actual fact, the tests themselves weren't too bad, it was the assessment and the paraphernalia that went with them that caused the excessive workload," he says.

Wandsworth Council took the matter to court, claiming the union was involved in a political dispute because it was opposed to the tests. It lost and he won. The result was a government review of the national curriculum by education's "Mr Fixit", Sir Ron (now Lord) Dearing, and a reduction in the demands made on teachers.

It was a defining moment. Politicians and administrators began to admit their reforms had placed an intolerable burden on teachers and sought – admittedly unsuccessfully at times – to trim the demands of the national curriculum.

"It showed we were on the way back," says Mr de Gruchy. "The unions had some influence again. The government began to consult us over what they were doing." In discussions with Baroness Blatch, standing in for then-Education Secretary John Patten, he also sought to further reduce teachers' workload by floating the idea of external markers for national curriculum tests.

His other campaigning issue is violence in the classroom. Mr de Gruchy has led a strident campaign which involved refusing to teach any child who was violent towards a teacher, if the school or governors refused to expel them. At the campaign's height, the NASUWT was taking action in almost 100 schools a year.

The most notorious case was at the Ridings School in Halifax, where the union threatened to strike unless 61 pupils were expelled. Mike Tomlinson, now the chief schools inspector, was head of the team that carried out an emergency inspection, dubbing it the worst school for discipline that he had seen. It was eventually closed for a week because of unruly behaviour, before a new head was brought in to turn it around.

"If the boycott and the High Court and Court of Appeal rulings was the finest hour, the Ridings was the grittiest," says Mr de Gruchy.

Now that he is leaving, he has one regret. His top three priorities can be summed up as "workload, workload, workload" rather than Tony Blair's "education, education and education". He is sorry that the final report of the pay-review body on teachers' workload and the ensuing negotiations will happen a few months after he goes.

It is "50-50" whether these talks will be successful, he says. "I blow hot and cold – that's how important it is for the profession. I will say this – if we don't get a settlement with the Government, teachers will fight for an agreement later."

Politicians have a love/hate relationship with Mr de Gruchy. David Blunkett, when he was Education Secretary, once only half-jokingly threatened to "break his legs" because of the union imposing industrial action over workload yet again. What ministers feared most were his notorious votes of thanks after their speeches to his union's annual conference. Those usually resulted in a ticking-off for all the policies that the NASUWT opposed.

On one famous occasion, just before the 1997 election which brought the Tories down, Mr de Gruchy sent Gillian Shephard, the last Conservative Education Secretary, away with the words "I hope it's au revoir and not adieu, and you'll come back as a shadow of yourself" – that is, in opposition.

Curriculum Vitae

Born: 28 January, 1943, Jersey, Channel Islands.

Lives: Green Street Green, a village outside Orpington, Kent.

Family: Married to American-born Judy, whom he met in Paris in the Sixties, a year before the student riots. One son, Paul.

School: De La Salle College, Jersey.

First jobs: Teaching English as a foreign language in France and Spain, sometimes without the correct immigration papers.

University: Studied economics and social philosophy at Reading University. Then took London University PGCE externally ("trained on the job, so I was 30 years ahead of my time").

Work history: Re-joined the De la Salle brothers as a teacher at St Joseph's Academy, Blackheath, in 1969, to "teach economics and pessimism". Went to a NASUWT union meeting about teachers' pay in the Albion pub in Lewisham and "made the mistake of opening my mouth – still involved 33 years later". Early voluntary involvement with NASUWT included stint as London association secretary and serving on the union's national executive. Became a staffer in 1978 as an assistant secretary, deputy general secretary in 1982, and got the top job in April 1990.

Current position: General Secretary of NASUWT until next week.

Also: A member of the TUC General Council and Executive.

Rivals: General secretary of the NUT, Doug McAvoy; general secretary of the ATL, Peter Smith.

Salary: £76,000.

Likes: Sancerre wine, golf, golf and more golf.

Holidays: Knows Minnesota, home of wife's parents, quite well. Looking forward to more travel.