Teachers pledge to fight on with strike as they mourn 'doughty fighter' and leader Steve Sinnott

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Steve Sinnott, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), died suddenly yesterday, only weeks before he was due to lead the first nationwide classroom strike for two decades.

The 56-year-old's death from a suspected heart attack stunned the education world and triggered a wave of tributes from political friends and opponents alike.

He was praised by fellow union leaders as a "doughty fighter" who campaigned for the rights of children in Britain and against "injustice and tyranny" around the world.

After an emergency meeting yesterday, the NUT agreed to go ahead with the one-day walkout over pay on 24 April.

Liverpool-born Mr Sinnott, a member of the NUT since 1974, had been general secretary since 2004. He leaves a wife, Mary, a son, a daughter and grandchildren.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: "Steve Sinnott was inspirational in his devotion to teaching, not just for children in Britain, but around the world. His commitment to teachers and education will be remembered."

Mr Sinnott clashed with the Government for imposing real-terms pay "cuts" on teachers. But Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Schools, said: "Steve was a passionate advocate for teachers and a great believer in the power of education to transform the life chances of children and young people. We did not always see eye to eye on every issue. But we never had an angry word. I never doubted for one moment Steve's commitment to the teaching profession and to ensuring all children get the best possible start in life."

Mr Sinnott had been in "buoyant" mood about the strike in recent days, after 75 per cent of members voted in favour of the action last Tuesday.

The walkout is the first national teachers' strike since 1987 and is over demands for a 4 per cent rise in line with the retail price index measure of inflation.

In a letter sent to members on Thursday, Mr Sinnott said: "Taking strike action will never be an easy choice for teachers, but action now could help prevent increasing damage through teacher shortages and low morale."

Christine Blower, NUT acting general secretary, said last night: "Our hearts go out to Steve's family at this sad time. I know that he would have wanted the union to go ahead with all its campaigns because he believed in all of them with his heart as well as his head."

Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, said: "Teachers, parents and students have lost a doughty fighter."