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Mr Nice Guy with aces up his sleeve

Francis Beckett meets Peter Smith, the man who raised the fortunes of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

In the Seventies, when I was press officer at the National Union of Students, I suspected that my clever, diplomatic counterpart at the extremely moderate Assistant Masters Association (AMA) was a closet radical playing a long game.

Today Peter Smith is general secretary and has led his union on a roller- coaster of change, always moving fast enough to prevent opposition from crystallizing.

Done less deftly, it could have been divisive, but Peter Smith has maintained a harmony suited to the man who shunned a promising career as an opera producer.

A former colleague says: "He dragged a Victorian union into the second half of the 20th century. We would not have gone into further education without him, because he anticipated what was going to happen and he saw an opportunity. "

Four years after he joined the staff in 1978, AMA merged with the Association of Assistant Mistresses to become Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association (AMMA). In 1988 Peter Smith became deputy general secretary and in 1991 general secretary.

In the past four years he has changed the union at breakneck speed, yet has done it so smoothly that many members have not appeared to notice. The name had to go. There are still a few dusty corners of the private-school system where chalky pedagogues call themselves masters and mistresses, but he was sure there was no long-term future for an organisation which used those names.

In 1992 AMMA became the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), and the following year began a drive into FE. It now claims 5,500 FE members.

The National Union of Teachers and National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers could not recruit in FE because the Bridlington Agreement prevented one TUC union from recruiting in another's territory, and FE was the domain of the lecturers' union NATFHE.

Since the ATL was not in the TUC, Peter Smith could ignore Bridlington. And when the TUC school teacher unions took strike action, he carefully positioned ATL so that it, and not the tiny Professional Association of Teachers, would pick up teachers who did not want to be called out on strike.

So today the ATL, once the minnow of education unions, finds itself disputing the title of second largest school teachers' union with the NASUWT. And the signs are that Peter Smith is preparing to spring another surprise. Now the Bridlington Agreement has been made illegal TUC membership would no longer bar him from recruiting in FE. Peter Smith has been dropping hints that ATL will soon have to think about joining the TUC.

It will be, if he pulls it off, a remarkable break from ATL's past. The AAM, formed in 1884, never mentioned teachers' pay, and some members resigned because it gave evidence to a salaries inquiry. The ATL's three stated objects still do not include improving salaries.

In April John Monks was the guest speaker at the ATL conference dinner in Harrogate. In September Peter was for the first time a guest at the education unions' traditional TUC reception.

He will be helped by his instinct for the middle way. Other non-TUC unions, like the electricians, make enemies by heaping easy abuse on their TUC colleagues, gloatingly poaching their members and overtly co-operating with employers. Roger Ward, who leads negotiations for the colleges, hoped Peter would play that game, but was disappointed. Remarkably, Peter, is on good terms with NATFHE general secretary John Akker and offers public support, saying that Ward's decision to withhold pay rises from NATFHE members on silver book contracts was "vindictive and extremely stupid". He regrets that the teachers' unions are divided, and resists the temptation to lay all the blame on the others.

Another Smith, the former Labour leader John Smith, was once compared (by Bryan Gould) to a crustacean camouflaged in the sea bed: "For a long time he keeps so still that you almost forget he's there. Then, when he makes his move, he moves very quickly indeed." Peter Smith is a little like that - and, again like John Smith, he plays a long game, quite happy to wait a decade before seeing the rewards of today's work.

He is a member of a political party, though he refuses to say which (friends are sure it is Labour). His job, requires "political equidistance-distance". If he expresses strong opinions, he is careful to choose single issues where his opinions might be shared across the political spectrum.

So in education, he is angry about "the talent we have wasted" and calls the 11-plus "a recipe for wasting talent", but he stops short of saying that selection wastes talent - that would pigeon-hole him politically.

The hatred of waste comes from his own education. He was born 55 years ago in south London and attended Haberdasher's Aske's Boys' School where he knew "a lot of very talented people who went to work at the earliest opportunity". It nearly happened to him. His father did not want him to go to university, but when the first XV was due to play in Oxford and there was a spare seat on the coach, Peter felt like a day out and took it. He fell in love with Oxford that November afternoon - "the misty, foggy, romantic atmosphere of the place" - and worked hard for a place there.

Once there, he hated it. Oxford seemed full of rich young men to whom getting to university meant nothing. Fellow students' wealth simply emphasised his poverty. But Oxford was where he met his wife Anne, now principal of John Ruskin Sixth Form College in Croydon. It was also where he developed his love for poetry, which is still what he mostly reads for pleasure: Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin, John Milton.

He emerged with an MA in English Language and Literature and became a graduate trainee at the Midland Bank for two years before changing direction to teach English for 11 years. He joined the AMA because it was the dominant union at his first school.

By 1974 he was also doing well as an opera producer, earning Pounds 3, 000 a year and considering going professional. Instead, he went to work for AMA - keeping them waiting so that he could complete Richard Rodney Bennett's All the King's Men for Granada TV.

It was the decision of an immensely cautious man who never gambles unless he is sure about the odds. It was also the decision of a man of sophisticated tastes who had enough of counting the pennies when he was at Oxford. Years ago before he nearly made his career at the Midland Bank because "the temptation of buying a house on a cheap mortgage was very seductive.

He thinks carefully before answering questions pausing mid-sentence to choose the word which exactly expresses his meaning. His own verdict on himself as a union leader is typically teasing, elliptical and uninformative: "It is good for all human beings to be nice. But a general secretary's niceness must be focused."

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