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The next leader of the largest teaching union?

As publicity over attacks on teachers and bullying mount Susan Young meets Nigel de Gruchy, the general secretary who intends to make no apology for being in your face.

Ubiquitous is the word for Nigel de Gruchy and his union at the moment. Turn on the television or radio, open a newspaper - and there's Nigel, opining on hard-pressed teachers, disruptive pupils, morality and lackadaisical parenting.

Politically correct he may not be, in your face he certainly is. For the sake of his beleaguered members, that is exactly where he wants to be.

On Monday morning, as the crisis at Manton Junior School was coming to a head, a film crew gathered at the London offices of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers near Covent Garden piazza and a unicyclist went past. For once, the cameras were not for de Gruchy. After all, what does this media magician have to learn from the cleverest of trick cyclists?

Suspicions abound that de Gruchy and the NASUWT have orchestrated the furores at Glaisdale, Manton and The Ridings schools for their own recruitment ends, hurling children into the spotlight to court popularity.

After all, de Gruchy, master of the soundbite, is wont to lurk at Government briefings armed with press releases for instant comment.

He has become so aware of the need to be proactive that he denies tipping off the press about any of the recent cases even before the question is put.

"We've been campaigning against disruptive pupils for the past 25 years and never courted publicity. At Manton, we tried to stop the chairman of governors writing a letter home to parents at the end of the summer term warning that the NASUWT might come out on strike: we had to ballot before the end of term because of Tory union legislation. Once that letter went out to parents it was only a matter of time before there was publicity, and I didn't want it to come out one Saturday afternoon in August when there was no one in authority to speak to. So I put the statement out to explain what we were doing."

At The Ridings, de Gruchy says journalists have assured him they were tipped off by the local authority. The story began to break on Friday, and de Gruchy's weekend was ruined by press phone calls.

"Next time I'll put out a press statement from the word go to explain what we are doing."

However, de Gruchy's habit of descending with senior officials - dubbed the A-Team - at schools in trouble hardly deflects the press. He says it is to see if solutions can be found, not for the benefit of television cameras. There is nothing he could be doing at his post which is more important than supporting members in schools, he adds.

Ancient the policy on disruptive pupils may be, but its recent implementation has not endeared Nigel and his union to colleagues. Recent comments by Association of Teachers and Lecturers leader Peter Smith on the dangers of the public perceiving that teachers only wanted good children led to letters from de Gruchy to Smith and his local secretaries, suggesting that they waste no time poaching members on the back of it.

Plans for the National Union of Teachers, the ATL and NASUWT to share a platform at the Labour conference last month fell apart over the issue, although the NUT now appears to be quietly publicising its actions over naughty pupils in a way it did not before.

One education official described as "disingenuous" claims that NASUWT was not to blame for the names of troublesome pupils hitting the headlines. And Margaret Morrissey of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations is worried that parents will soon feel alienated and targeted by the union's public stance.

Does Nigel de Gruchy feel guilty about Richard Wilding, the disruptive teenager whose father died at the height of the row over his schooling and who is now in a special unit? "I feel desperately sorry for all of them. But I feel sorrier for my members whose lives are wrecked."

He blames social and economic factors as well as poor parenting for disruptive pupils although his famous soundbite - that he'd rather have such pupils wrecking cars on the streets than wrecking other kids' education - suggests his solutions might be simplistic.

He wants the return of special schools for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties, arguing that a Welsh version he visited recently showed children were less ghettoised there than they were in, say, The Ridings. They are an expensive option - but, he admits political minds may well be concentrated by the spectre of disruptive children roaming the streets. But what happens if they aren't?

What makes the NASUWT tick? Classroom issues, he says, which is why disruptive pupils and bullying are high on the agenda. There is no victim mentality among members: their concerns are practical, he says, irrespective of party politics.

His conversation is peppered with casual outbursts about "Tory union policy" and the "bloody crap" of Mrs Shephard and the morality campaign. Lest he appear partial a framed photograph of de Gruchy with Labour leader Tony Blair lies casually abandoned in his office.

He claims credit for the creation of the School Teachers' Review Body which has maintained national pay scales through the upheavals of grant-maintained schools and new local authorities. His defining moment was when the NASUWT got the High Court to agree that the boycott of the testing regime was a legitimate trade dispute on workload grounds.

A framed photo of de Gruchy emerging from court, fists clenched in victory, hangs on the wall behind his desk, alongside two framed legal reports from The Times.

Perhaps the next key moment for de Gruchy will be when the NASUWT is no longer described as the country's second largest teaching union. Figures for paying members for 199495 put NASUWT on 157,146, closing the gap on the National Union of Teachers' 192,009. He talks of hitting the 200,000 mark in 10 years.

But perhaps the biggest revelation of all is that de Gruchy, the sharp-talking, sharp-suited king of the soundbite, almost did not apply for the general secretary's job.

"I thought it would be a bed of nails, that there would be no glorious victories. I thought it was going to be blood, toil, sweat and tears in which my main job was going to be to defy the Tory onslaught. But as it turned out I was wrong. Maybe it was a self-defeating prophecy."

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