Teachers plan to merge three biggest unions

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The Independent Online

Talks will begin next month on the creation of a "super union" for teachers, it was revealed yesterday. Leaders of the three biggest teachers' organisations will meet the TUC general secretary, John Monks, to discuss a timetable for a merger or federation.

The move was disclosed by Peter Smith, the general secretary of the 160,000-strong Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), the most moderate of the three, at its annual conference in Cardiff. The two other unions are the National Union of Teachers (NUT), which has 217,000 members, and the 200,000-strong National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT).

Mr Smith told the conference that the arguments for unity were powerful, adding: "Politicians of all parties – both at local and national level – find it hard to understand why, as they put it, 'teachers can't get their act together'. The TUC finds that the constant fractiousness between the teacher unions makes it all but impossible for the General Council to generate coherent education policy or a powerful critique of the Government." Mr Smith said the time-scale for a decision could be "quite short".

All three general secretaries will retire within the next four years. Nigel de Gruchy, the NASUWT general secretary, will stand down at the end of his union's conference next week. His successor, Eamonn O'Kane, has circulated a paper in the union backing a merger.

"I think there is a mood for a wind of change," Mr Smith said. "I think the teacher organisations are gradually coming to see that their sectarianism has prevented them from increasing their influence upon the Government. It dilutes the message and is a recipe for divide and rule."

Mr Smith said he would not predict whether all three would merge or form a federation. He said the decision would be taken by union members.

He said a key to the future would be the debate within the NASUWT, where a substantial minority of the union executive opposed Mr O'Kane's paper. The NUT had always been in favour of a single union. "I think the NUT has this problem: it has never overcome the shock of no longer being the one union of the profession," he added. "It has been very difficult for them genuinely to listen to the voice of others. There is a psychological transformation that needs to take place within the NUT to the change in circumstances."

He also criticised NUT members for striking over cost-of-living allowances in London and the Home Counties earlier this month and headteachers for threatening industrial action over the lack of government cash for performance-related pay for their staff.

"I don't have a lot of time for the idea that industrial action by teachers will strengthen our hand in negotiations with the Government," Mr Smith added.

However, he warned that if the Government refused to fund a cut in teachers' workload this summer, his union would consider industrial action. Teachers south of the border must be given a guaranteed maximum teaching time of 22.5 hours per week – the same as in Scotland – he said.

* The ATL will demand at its conference today strict new laws to allow ministers to remove state funding and recognition from any faith school refusing to admit pupils of other religions or no religion.