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)

News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Travel
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
Sport
footballManchester City 1 Roma 1: Result leaves Premier League champions in danger of not progressing
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
News
i100
Life and Style
Magic roundabouts: the gyratory system that has excited enthusiasts in Swindon
motoringJust who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
booksWell it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Supply teachers required for secondary schools in Peterborough

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Secondary supply teac...

English Teacher - January

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: English Teacher A Hull school i...

Humanities Teacher - January

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Humanities, Religious Education ...

Science Teacher

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Science Teacher - South Es...

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?