Steve Sinnott: General Secretary of the NUT

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Steve Sinnott, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, was the first product of the comprehensive education system to head Britain's biggest teachers' union. He was immensely proud of that fact and dedicated his life to ensuring that other youngsters who passed through the same system got the best chance in life.

Sinnott was about to lead the union into its first national strike for more than 20 years. At the NUT's annual conference in Manchester at Easter, the delegates passed a resolution to back strike action over the 2.45 per cent pay award to teachers made by the School Teachers' Review Body this year. A ballot of the membership produced a 75 per cent vote in favour of striking – although ministers highlighted the fact that there was only a 32 per cent turn out of those eligible to vote.

Despite a more militant demand for a 10 per cent increase from the conference floor, Sinnott was adamant the dispute could be settled if the Government would increase the offer to the level of inflation as measured by the Retail Price Index, which is currently running at just over 4 per cent. In one of his last acts as general secretary of the union he said in a letter to his members on Thursday: "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."

Sinnott inherited the mantle of general secretary of the NUT from Doug McAvoy in 2004, at a time when the union's conferences were a byword for infighting between its rival factions. His greatest achievement was to unite the warring factions of the union's ultra-left and its more moderate executive in a common goal. He adopted a "big tent" philosophy towards the running of the union. To him, it did not matter what a person's politics had been. If they could do the job, they got it.

However, he was unable to heal the rift with the Government over the union's refusal to sign a workload agreement with ministers and join in a social partnership with the other teachers' unions. The NUT was always against the agreement – signed by all the others – because it gave classroom assistants the opportunity to take control of lessons. The NUT believed that should be a job left to trained teachers.

Steve Sinnott was born and brought up in Liverpool. His first teaching post after graduating with a degree in social science from Middlesex Polytechnic was as a teacher of humanities at Shorefields Comprehensive in Toxteth in his native city. In 1979 he moved to Broughton High School, near Preston, where he became head of economic and business studies, until his election as Deputy General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers in 1994, the year he also became the union's president.

In his spell as deputy, he devoted much of his time to the union's international work, campaigning in particular against the attempts by the Ethiopian government to silence and harass teacher union members.

Among his concerns on becoming General Secretary was the exploitation of children in the UK through commercialisation. He believed that many youngsters today were being denied a childhood by being exposed to the commercial world at too early an age. He sought in particular to stop the big brewing companies sponsoring football teams, believing they set a bad example to today's children by ensuring youngsters purchased football kit displaying their wares.

Ironically, the day after his death was announced it became apparent that the Government was taking on board some of his concerns about the exploitation of children. Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and Andy Burnham, the Culture Secretary, announced they were seeking the views of young people and parents on whether the commercial world was impacting on children's lives.

The ministers announced they had appointed David Buckingham, Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, London University, as the chairman of a panel of independent experts to look into the effects of children's engagement with the commercial world. Mr Balls said: "Parents have already told us that they're concerned consumerism is skewing our children's values and aspirations – so I want an independent assessment to help us understand what is happening and it should help families strike the right balance so they can keep their children safe but also allow them the freedom to learn and develop.

It is a move that Sinnott would have wholeheartedly endorsed and the NUT's evidence on the subject is likely to form a key part of the enquiry.

Sinnott found it easy to maintain a friendship with the rival teachers' union leaders despite their differences of opinion. Chris Keates, the general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers, the second largest teachers' union, described his passing as a tragedy for his union and for the trade union movement: "whatever the differences between our two unions we have always been united in wanting to do the best for teachers."

Yesterday the NUT was adamant that the strike would still go ahead. Christine Blower, the Deputy General Secretary, said: "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."

He was said by colleagues in the past few weeks to have been in a "buoyant" mood about the one-day strike on 24 April – which could be followed by further action later in the summer if, as seems likely, this strike fails to persuade the government to increase the 2.45 per cent pay award. Blower said: "The best way to mark our respect for Steve Sinnott would be to maximise the effect of the campaigns to which he was so committed."

Sinnott was a devoted Everton football fan. He was a vegetarian who lived a healthy lifestyle, and was committed to cycling and keeping fit.

Richard Garner

Stephen Sinnott, teacher and trade unionist: born Liverpool 24 June 1951; President, National Union of Teachers 1994-95, Deputy General Secretary 1994-2004, General Secretary 2004-08; married 1972 Mary Crossman (one son, one daughter); died Watford, Hertfordshire 5 April 2008.