Soundbite king takes final bow

Peter Smith is to relinquish the helm of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, reports Biddy Passmore

TEACHERS will lose one of their most eloquent spokesmen when Peter Smith retires as general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers at the end of the year.

His retirement, announced this week, comes at the age of 62 after months of ill health. It means that education will lose a second vivid phrasemaker only months after the retirement of Nigel de Gruchy of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers.

After working for Britain's third biggest teaching union since 1974 and leading it for the past decade, Mr Smith said 30 years in the same organisation was "long enough".

"I will stay interested in education and I want to pursue other interests as well. In any case, it is time for somebody new to bring fresh perspective to the job."

Described by officials from other unions as sharp, generous and canny, he is credited by former colleagues for turning round "a fairly nondescript outfit heading nowhere to something fairly respectable".

During his decade at the helm, the union has changed from the pro-grammar school Assistant Masters' and Mistresses' Association to the ATL although it has never really capitalised on its links with lecturers.

Three years ago, Mr Smith got his no-strike union affliated to the Trades Union Congress while successfully fighting off a leadership challenge from Gill Sage, a former member of the union's legal department.

Since then he has secured the backing of his members for a strong stance on workload and supported cross-union motions urging a 35-hour working week.

And in the process Mr Smith has become the highest paid teacher union official: in 2001, his salary was pound;93,400, pound;7,000 more than that of Doug McAvoy of the National Union of Teachers.

Mr McAvoy said the ATL leader would be sorely missed: "Peter is highly intelligent and highly articulate, with a real sense of vision and strategy."

His retirement may now put a brake on moves towards merger with the other two large teacher unions, as his successor may not want a job with too short a life.

A lover of music and drama, Mr Smith wrote and directed musicals in Croydon while he was teaching there and has also written and directed a children's opera for television.

His last appearance as general secretary at the ATL's annual conference in Cardiff this year was certainly dramatic. He suddenly appeared, head heavily bandaged, to greet Estelle Morris, the Education Secretary. He had slipped in the shower and wounded his head.

Gerald Imison, deputy general secretary of the ATL, says it will be hard to replace him.

"His drive was legendary," he said. "He would ring me up at 11pm and not talk for long because he had five more people to ring. His commitment is all-embracing and unlikely to be equalled."

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