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Chance to sideline 'plonkers' who tarnish image

Grassroots members hope a super union will hold Easter conferences that they can be proud of. Richard Margrave reports.

UNION unity is a chance for the silent majority to wrest back the image of teaching from the grip of extremists, according to a group of staff at Cowplain secondary school in Hampshire.

Jason Ashley, head of history and media, and an NUT member, describes his thoughts as he watches the union's conference each Easter: "I see these plonkers in the headlines, booing the people they have asked to come and talk and playing silly beggars. It's like watching a class of Year 7s".

The impact on the image of teaching is severe, he says. "The majority of parents say they couldn't do my job and yet people who I go out with, and play football, have a completely different image of what teaching is and what we stand for".

With his colleagues in broad agreement, he adds, "I have absolutely no problem with the unions amalgamating, having one union, because I think it allows the militants to be dissolved."

Cowplain teachers feel union splits at national level have meant that their interests have not been properly represented.

It is also clear that local co-operation between unions provides a stark contrast to the strained relationships at the national level. Indeed, the principle of union unity is already being applied by new teachers that simply join the strongest union in the school. "There is definitely a search for unity on a school-by-school basis", according to Martin Basford, languages teacher.

All the unions at Cowplain school work closely together. Head David Rowlinson says, "I seek their advice about things that I'm not sure about and they have always been very straight in giving me advice". Whilst seeing "fairly large hurdles" in the way of unity, he is in favour, adding, "there is a recognition that pulling in different directions doesn't get you very far, especially with government".

Unity is also a reality at local education authority level. Classroom and heads' unions in Hampshire combine to negotiate with the LEA. David Belfield, technology teacher, explains, "Six branch secretaries talk with the LEA; we basically talk as one. The only real difference between us is our name" The debate has only just begun in earnest, but there is widespread support at the school for a single teaching union. Eric Champion, head of technology, sums up the mood: a new super union simply represents, "a new beginning, a new direction".

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