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McAvoy: glad to be workload refusenik

The leader of the biggest teachers' union talks to William Stewart.

Doug McAvoy is in a bullish mood. As general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, he says the decision not to sign the workload deal won him praise and new members.

This stance, he said, may have left the union a pariah with the Government, but he is unrepentant and calls ministers immature.

"If this is what happens when the NUT disagrees with Government on a fundamental issue then it could happen to every other union. We didn't get that treatment even under Thatcher," he said.

Even so, he admits he does want to get back into talks on the workload agreement, but says that rival unions are "kidding themselves" over the deal's contents.

The previous day, Mr McAvoy attended "peace talks" with the rest of the TUC-affiliated school staff unions, which signed the Government's reform package in January.

Eamonn O'Kane, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said it involved a certain amount of "straight talking" from the pro-agreement unions. They were not particularly enamoured with the campaign the NUT had waged against the deal and its signatories in newspaper advertisements.

The NUT's promotion of its reasons for not signing had been a "real success", said Mr McAvoy. "People in the union have said 'you have made my job easier because more people are asking to join.'"

He said he would remain totally opposed to the principle of allowing teaching assistants to take lessons unaccompanied. But he admitted his union could not stop the deal and he hoped it would be involved in its implementation.

He was upset that Education Secretary Charles Clarke has refused to attend this year's Easter NUT conference in Harrogate. He rejected the suggestion that it had anything to do with heckling from delegates or the new rule that allows visiting speakers only 10 minutes.

"The real reason is obvious," he said. "I think it is sour grapes that we won't sign and that is why I described it as immature."

Mr McAvoy turns 65 next January but there is no rule that prevents him standing for another term when his ends in June 2004.

Would he stand again? There is a long pause, before he says: "I don't know but at this moment I wouldn't be intending to stand. My expectation is that this will be my last period as general secretary."

He was coy about naming his preferred successor, but said: "I have a preference in that I hope whoever it is would have the same priorities that I have had over 15 years."

But as anyone who knows the wily Welshman, who has largely outwitted his union's political factions for 14 years, he could still spring a surprise on those harbouring ambitions to take on his mantle. In the meantime he has a full in-tray to be getting on with.

Left-wingers on the NUT executive are pressing him to hold a ballot on a unilateral boycott of primary school national tests. But Mr McAvoy said he favoured delaying any possible action because when members were surveyed they had not shown any enthusiam for going it alone.

Briefing, 29

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