United they'll stand

Change is in the air for the NUT, whose conference starts tomorrow. Steve Sinnott, the new general secretary, wants to heal rifts, says Richard Garner
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The Independent Online

A new mood is abroad at the National Union of Teachers, the biggest teachers' union famous for its factionalism and infighting, and splits between hard and soft left. Steve Sinnott, the former Liverpool comprehensive school teacher and the new general secretary, who is facing his first annual conference tomorrow, has adopted a "big tent" philosophy towards the NUT's warring factions.

A new mood is abroad at the National Union of Teachers, the biggest teachers' union famous for its factionalism and infighting, and splits between hard and soft left. Steve Sinnott, the former Liverpool comprehensive school teacher and the new general secretary, who is facing his first annual conference tomorrow, has adopted a "big tent" philosophy towards the NUT's warring factions.

Cleverly, he has given his two closest rivals for the union top job in last year's elections key roles in running the union. John Bangs, head of education, is still in the role of "fronting" the NUT in the media, a job he did in the days of the former general secretary, Doug McAvoy. And Ian Murch, the hard-left rival who came second in the election, is heading a team looking at ways of rebuilding grassroots activities.

Many of the key committees, although still chaired by the Broadly Speaking (soft-left) group which campaigned for Sinnott's victory, now have hard-left deputies as well. As one veteran left-winger put it: "Some of us who have been frozen out for years have now come in from the cold."

Sinnott's new hard-left deputy, Christine Blower, who was elected to the job made vacant by him only last month, has been promised that she will not be left out in the cold. "I think you have to make a transition when you become an official," Sinnott says. "You're no longer a faction person but an official of the NUT. I've made that transition."

You could, therefore, read a couple of meanings into the union conference's theme, "breaking down the barriers", which was meant to stand for breaking down the barriers faced by the poor and disabled in access to a decent education. Sinnott says: "A new chief executive or general secretary in a union can be a disruptive time. I wanted first of all to have a settled team of officials around me at headquarters. It was a question of 'come into the tent, the more that come in, the better'."

But although the mood at headquarters may have changed, the music that will emanate from the conference this weekend will be largely the same. There will be calls for a national one-day strike over "teaching on the cheap" - allowing classroom assistants to take over the lessons of teachers. There will be another one-day strike over pensions - where the Government is trying to make teachers work until they are 65 instead of 60 - and a campaign to stop any more of Tony Blair's cherished academies getting off the ground. Union activists claim the academies are divisive and lead to a two-tier system of education by creaming off middle-class pupils from the rest. It is not an agenda that will bring joy to Ruth Kelly and her team over the Easter holidays.

Sinnott has been seeking a thaw in relations with the Government following the decision by the former Education Secretary Charles Clarke's decision to declare the union persona non grata. The NUT was frozen out for refusing to sign the agreement on workload which allowed classroom assistants to take over classes in exchange for giving teachers more marking and preparation time.

To some extent, Sinnott has been successful - he was granted an audience with Kelly in the run-up to the conference. And, generally, he is sanguine about their relations."I can identify some parts of what the Government has done of which we can be pretty supportive," he says.

"I go round schools and they are in a much better state than they were in 1997. You can't go round schools and not see the improved conditions." But he believes that the union must make its voice clear to Government when it disagrees with them. Kelly will not be attending this year's conference in Gateshead. This time it is because she has not been invited. By contrast, Charles Clarke was invited but refused to attend two years running. The union decided to ban all politicians this year to allow activists more time to debate their favourite issues.

"There was a time when delegates wanted to hear what the Secretary of State had to say," he explains. "But those times are long gone." He acknowledges that the heckling to which successive Education Secretaries were subject "did not show the union in its best light".

The new general secretary has a solution to this stand-off. He wants to set up a prestigious occasion away from the hurly-burly of the conference where the Education Secretary can deliver a state-of-the-nation address to an NUT audience.

Sinnott is not the only new teachers' general secretary to take centre stage this Easter. Chris Keates, of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, is also in the spotlight for the first time. And she is anxious to secure maximum benefit for her members from the workload agreement that her union has signed.

The deal restricts covering lessons for absent colleagues and introduces guaranteed marking and preparation time. "Some of our members in schools that have implemented it can't remember the last time they had any cover," she says. "Other schools are cherry-picking from it. They have to remember it is a binding agreement and, if they don't implement it, we will have no hesitation in resorting to legal or industrial action to make sure our members get the benefit."

Despite their differences over the workload agreement, relations between the two unions have become warmer in the last year. Keates has invited Sinnott to address a fringe meeting at her conference in Brighton next week - the first time an NUT general secretary has ever done that. She puts the new-found warmth down to the NUT dropping a hostile advertising campaign in which it accused the other unions of being collaborators for signing the Government's workload agreement.

She is adamant, however, that a merger is not on the table. "It is going to take quite a long while to heal the damage caused by that advertising campaign," she says.

The late Eamonn O'Kane, her predecessor who was pro merger, said before last year's conference that the NUT's actions had put merger back for a generation. Sinnott, while acknowledging the climate is worse now than two years ago, believes that it could change again.

WHAT THE UNIONS SAY ABOUT EACH OTHER

Chris Keates on Steve Sinnott

"Steve has removed some of the hostile stance of the NUT towards other TUC-affiliated teachers' unions. I've noticed a change in the material that Steve is putting into schools. It gives the NUT position without condemning others."

Sinnott on Keates

"Chris has done very well. She has got real clarity in terms of what she is pressing for and I think she is a very good leader of the NASUWT."

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, on both

"Steve Sinnott has done a pretty good job in turning round the NUT's image that it is difficult to deal with. Obviously, though, it still wants to have its cake and eat it on the workload agreement (by refusing to sign it but accepting its benefits).

"On Chris Keates, I think it is too early to say. I think she will be robust in pursuing her members' interests but I hope she will not be too aggressive when dealing with senior management." RG

r.garner@independent.co.uk

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