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Burden of a weighty gesture

Last week Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, welcomed his members' rejection of "gesture politics" when they voted four to one against the strike over class sizes called for at their Easter conference. This week he showed he was not above a party political gesture himself when he ate his union's own words, so recently pronounced, on grant-maintained status.

In what seemed designed as a pre-emptive act of fealty to Tony Blair and Labour's new policy, the largest teacher union leader executed a breathtaking U-turn. Indeed, he may even have overdone it. With the zealousness of the convert, his new enthusiasm for the idea that all schools be funded directly along the lines of grant-maintained ones was not so much a vote for delegation as one against any significant role for local authorities. This not only split the axis of unions and local authority leaders. It also rocked the delicate balancing act David Blunkett has to perform to satisfy demands for the restoration of local democracy without frightening the voters by recreating local authoritarians.

Doug McAvoy made no secret of his motivation; he badly wants to be restored to the inner councils of Labour policy-making on education. He may have reasoned that this called for a grand gesture. After all, Blair and Blunkett would probably have preferred opposition to their plans. That at least would have provided another opportunity to distance Labour from the unions, especially the one which, in the public mind, infamously jostled not only a shadow Minister who happens to be blind but, even worse, his dog. If Mr McAvoy ingratiates himself with Labour, it may have a long-term pay-off for his members. But whether the thousands of them now facing redundancy or larger classes will share their leader's present priorities for the direction of his energies is another matter.

Of course, Nigel de Gruchy at the rival NASUWT lost no time in emphasising its political independence and the continuation of its policy on GM schools. He did not, however, say what that policy was and, while he was careful to condemn injustices in funding, he too allowed that "old-style LEAs are not necessarily the best way of delivering effective education". Even that relentless batterer of the GM sector, the local authority-funded Local Schools Information, rushed out a part-complete document calling for a new consensus and warning of "easy, glib answers to difficult problems with complex systems". Positions were indeed shifting this week, with those doing the shifting not always completely clear where they were going to end up.

But whatever else Doug McAvoy is up to, he is certainly exercising leadership. The conference melee may have damaged the profession's image but it strengthened his own hand within its ranks and provided justification for more central control over the hearts and minds of members. The gelding of local authorities could similarly weaken the local association power bases of McAvoy's left-wing critics.

Last week's vote underlined once again that the general secretary, not the conference hotheads, speaks for and controls the voting membership. When finally convinced of the wisdom of a boycott of national curriculum tests, he marched them up that hill. And when the time came he used a ballot to march them down again against the wishes of the activists. Now he has marched them away from a political battle over class sizes and from the sound of anti-GM gunfire, using parental alliances and surveys of members' opinions in GM schools as a rearguard. But what is he marching towards?

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