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Nigel de Gruchy: 'Teacher strikes don't have to be selfish'

There's a spring of discontent looming for teachers. But industrial action needn't harm pupils, says veteran union leader Nigel de Gruchy – in fact, it can be good for them, he tells Richard Garner.

It was Nigel de Gruchy who first dreamt up the soundbite "industrial action with a halo", applied by himself to the industrial action by the union of which he was general secretary for 12 years, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT). Union members refused to teach the most disruptive of pupils so as to restore order to the classroom for the other 25 or so young people in it.

In most cases, this was applied when a pupil had been permanently excluded from school after an assault – either on a teacher or fellow pupils – but ordered back into the classroom after a successful appeal against his or her exclusion.

Industrial action by teachers is expected to loom large in the national consciousness over the next week as both the NASUWT and National Union of Teachers (NUT) consider escalating action over the Government's decision to scrap annual incremental pay increases for teachers, increase their pension contributions and cut education spending.

The phrase "with a halo" is unlikely to be much in use this time, especially from the lips of the Coalition Government as it contemplates the spectre of children being sent home from school.

That phrase of Mr de Gruchy's comes to mind at this time because he has just published a book. Despite its rather pedestrian title, The History of the NASUWT 1919-2002: The Story of a Battling Minority, it is an interesting read, giving a philosophical insight into the question of whether teachers should engage in industrial action.

In typical de Gruchy style (he was renowned for his pithy soundbites in explaining complex educational issues), he tackles the question head-on. "Were we a professional organisation, which by popular definition (if not in reality) put the clients – the children – first, ahead of any consideration of self-interest? Or were we a trade union which put its members' interest first and 'to hell with the kid'?"

"If forced to answer the question in terms of such simplistic and brutal alternatives we came down on the side of being a trade union." However, he concludes that the issues "are not so starkly opposed as I have portrayed".

"In practice, most of the time the interests of the pupils and teachers ran parallel," he adds. Witness The Ridings School in Halifax, Calderdale, where the NASUWT drew up a list of 61 pupils whom teachers had identified as troublemakers. While Mr de Gruchy insists that did not mean his members would refuse to teach all 61, it did mean that some form of disciplinary action needed to be taken against them.

Matters came to head one day with a sexual assault on a teacher and stones being thrown at inspectors who had been sent into the school by the government to carry out an emergency inspection because of the disciplinary problems. The teachers were instructed to withdraw to the staff room for safety. Within two hours, the school was closed and the pupils sent home.

A "superhead" from a neighbouring school was sent in to sort out the situation and he began by suspending some of the pupils – something which, Mr de Gruchy argues, began a road to a more peaceful future for the school, which would not have happened were it not for the union's action.

Sadly, new initiatives introduced by a new head teacher, Anna White, widely credited with turning the school's fortunes around, failed to be sustained after her departure – and the school closed in 2008 to be replaced by an academy.

The Ridings was one of four headline cases of industrial action that year (1996) taken by the union. Resolutions of the disputes included the face-saving formula of teaching the disruptive child "in isolation" by a supply teacher – a move that prevented the boy or girl disrupting lessons for other pupils.

Many of the disputes in which the union was involved ended up with court action including the case of three boys at one school in Hertfordshire who delivered a savage beating to another pupil in the school's toilets but were allowed back into the classroom on appeal. One, pupil, "L", claimed in his defence in the court case that although he had aimed a hefty kick at the writhing pupil, he had missed.

Mr de Gruchy cites as another example of action that has benefited the pupils the union's successful boycott of national curriculum tests for seven, 11 and 14 year olds soon after they were introduced for the first time following Kenneth (now Lord) Baker's controversial education reforms of the late 1980s.

"In every statement to the media, I emphasised that 'no single child would lose one second of education – on the contrary, education would be enhanced as teachers were liberated from a burdensome nightmare," he says.

The upshot was a government-ordered review of the national curriculum carried out by Lord Dearing, which acknowledged that it was over-burdensome and cut out some of the original compulsory content. In addition, to reducing the burden on teachers, tests for 11- and 14-year-olds then became externally marked.

Of course, the union – along with others – did have a history of engaging in industrial action that was not necessarily covered by the epithet "with a halo".

There were extensive strikes over pay in the 1980s, for instance, but Mr de Gruchy's perception of the eventual outcome of this period of militancy is interesting to note.

There was a divergence between the NASUWT and NUT over the government's final solution to end the militancy – the setting up of a schoolteachers' pay review body to hear evidence from the teachers and their employers about pay rises, which would recommend a rise without recourse to negotiation. The NUT took a traditional trade union line that it was being robbed of its right to negotiate, but Mr de Gruchy points out its introduction had led to pay for teachers comparing favourably with many periods in the past.

"Furthermore, there had been no national industrial action over pay for 18 years until 2008 when the NUT took a one-day strike protesting against a settlement falling below the Retail Price Index," he says. "That alone says a lot. The struggle for decent pay itself is perhaps never-ending. It is more likely to be achieved through genuine social partnership (as set up under the Labour government to discuss policy issues) when that is possible."

He is withering, though, in his comments on the present Government's attitude towards a partnership with teachers.

"The speed with which these welcome developments have been dismantled by the Coalition Government post the general election of 2010 (not to mention the wider attacks upon public services) is as startling as it is reckless and disgraceful," he comments.

It makes you think that – were he still at the helm of the NASUWT at this year's conference – he would probably be backing proposals for some kind of an escalation of the conflict with the Government on pay, pensions and education spending.

However, if an escalation were to lead to government curbs on the ability of teachers to take industrial action, it's worth reflecting on his view that in not all cases is this directly in conflict with the interests of the child.

The History of the NASUWT 1919-2002: The Story of a Battling Minority by Nigel de Gruchy (Arima Publishing, £25)