NUT veteran bows out as he came in - all guns blazing

The manner of his exit was typical of his time in charge: after 15 years at the head of Britain's largest teachers' union, Doug McAvoy went out with guns blazing.

The manner of his exit was typical of his time in charge: after 15 years at the head of Britain's largest teachers' union, Doug McAvoy went out with guns blazing.

The former PE teacher, 64, from Newcastle upon Tyne is renowned for his forthright opinions. He has feared no one; often winning more enemies than friends outside the confines of Hamilton House in London, the headquarters of the National Union of Teachers (NUT).

Yesterday, he did not disappoint, with a withering attack on New Labour, his fellow teacher trade unions and the TUC.

Mr McAvoy won his spurs leading the union during the long-running pay disputes of the 1980s, standing in for his predecessor, Fred Jarvis, who had been injured in a hit-and-run accident at the height of the industrial action.

During the 1980 pay battles, he was described by Philip Merridale, the Conservative leader of the country's local authority employers, as Arthur Scargill's "Little Sir Echo'' and ministers and teachers' union leaders have been only too happy to dismiss him as "obstructionist''.

But any attempt to portray him as a left-wing strike-happy union baron is wide of the mark. When he first stood for the NUT's general secretaryship in 1989, it was on a "modernisation'' ticket; long before Tony Blair had ever dreamt of the word. He realised the union's militant image was putting off potential recruits.

One of his first acts was to denounce the union's hard left, claiming at his first annual conference that the NUT was in danger of becoming under the control of the militant tendency. His comments mirrored the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock's attack on the same organisation, when he talked about the "grotesque'' sight of a Labour council sending out redundancy notices by taxi to public service employees. He formed a close relationship with Mr Kinnock, a one-time shadow education spokesman for his party. At that time, he got to know Charles Clarke, the now Secretary of State for Education. The two got on well: they were similar types, often characterised as no-nonsense bruisers who could stand up to anyone at any time.

Now, they hardly have a civil word to say to each other. Mr McAvoy believes Mr Clarke is "childish and immature'' for refusing to talk to the NUT after it became the only union to refuse to sign an agreement to reduce teachers' workload. Mr McAvoy's dislike of Mr Clarke's tactics have produced the spectacle during the past few days of him snuggling up to Tim Yeo, the Tory education spokesman.

Mr McAvoy leaves the NUT without influence in government circles and out of favour with the other five teachers' unions and the TUC. But he inherited a union that faced a financial crisis as the result of dwindling membership. During his reign, membership has risen from an all-time low of 183,000 to more than 250,000 today.

Mr McAvoy leaves office on 28 June.

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