A union's fall from grace

18th October 1996 at 01:00
The National Union of Teachers celebrated its 125th birthday last year. To mark the occasion, it commiss-ioned Put To The Test, an official history from 1970. Author Stephen Bates delivered the script nine months ago, but the union's executive vacillated over publication before finally voting to abort the project.

Extracts are reproduced in The TES today. Bates, The Guardian's former education editor and now European affairs editor in Brussels, denies it's a hatchet job. "You'd think it was terrifically hostile to the NUT, but it isn't."

The opening chapter, part of which is reproduced opposite, catalogues the union's fall from grace in the profession and the loss of one-third of its members. It is this analysis which Bates, who was paid Pounds 10,000 for the 80,000-word script, suspects has caused the biggest upset. He remains owner of the copyright

It has been a very great fall. When, in September 1970, the National Union of Teachers celebrated its centenary with a formal dinner at the Guildhall in the City of London, it was, with the possible exception of Harvard, the most powerful and influential educational institution in the world.

It had most of the teachers of England and Wales in membership, had just won a famous victory over pay, following its first-ever demonstration of national militancy and it was almost suffocatingly respectable - internationally as much as at home.

Two Prime Ministers - one, Harold Wilson, recently ejected from Downing Street, the other, Margaret Thatcher, newly-embarked on a ministerial career that would make her the nemesis of the NUT over much of the following 25 years - attended the dinner that night. So did the Archbishop of York and the Speaker of the House of Commons (Horace King, himself an NUT member). They wanted to pay the union honour. It could look forward, as its dinner-jacketed panjandrums passed the port, to a seemingly ever rosier, sunlit future: one in which the profession and its union would continue to receive the plaudits and justified respect of a grateful nation.

Yet, for most of the past 25 years, during the professional life of many of its members, the NUT has been an organisation at war with itself, divided in its counsels and uncertain of the path it should follow. It has been denigrated and its importance considerably reduced. In this it mirrors the state education service itself: a quarter of a century ago there was almost boundless confidence in the ever upward progress of the schooling system. Now there is considerable doubt about its performance.

No longer the most dominant or visionary voice in education, the NUT now represents fewer than half the teachers in England and Wales - 198,000 out of more than 400,000 - and, although still respected within the profession for its professional services and advisory work, its influence over education has been much diminished. Secretaries of State for Education meet its leaders periodically but do not pay it public court. The chances of that changing much under a Labour government are little greater than under the Tories.

Indeed, the oafish attack on Labour's Education Spokesman at the union's 1995 conference, which dominated all news reports about it, underlined for many the NUT's sad decline in public esteem. The sight of David Blunkett - a blind and therefore particularly vulnerable figure - having to be locked in a room for his own protection while Socialist Workers Party extremists screamed at him and hammered on the window, was a most potent and shocking image. It was a blow to the union and, to all but a tiny handful of its members, a professional humiliation. In an era of soundbite politics, the spectacle played unceasingly on television news programmes and could not fail to damage the NUT and teachers in the public eye.

This book charts this uncomfortable history. It is clear that some of it could not have been foreseen or prevented, but equally that the NUT and its leadership have been the hapless authors, if rarely the masters, of their fate. The union's leadership believes the union is on the way back: that it is regaining influence with government and is finding itself listened to for the first time in years.

This is almost certainly true - and there are stirrings on the back benches of the Conservative party about Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, to prove it. But the extent of the union's real effect on national policy is not obvious to the outside world. If the union is ever to regain a benign and respected influence in education, its members still have to learn some bitter lessons.

In 1970, The NUT was a staid body, conscious of its dignity and jealous of its influence, disdainful of other teaching unions and secure in its knowledge that the education service was expanding and its role would be central.

It claimed the membership of more than 300,000 of the 350,000 teachers in England and Wales and its general secretaries, customarily knighted while in office, not only led the teachers' side in national salary negotiations but regularly had the ear of ministers. It has lost maybe a third of its members since.

Beadily, Margaret Thatcher noted the closeness of the links between the NUT establishment and her own department as she stood in for Ted Heath at the Guildhall dinner: "There were a large number of DES senior civil servants present and it was immediately clear to me that they and the NUT leaders were on the closest of terms," she wrote last year in her memoirs, The Path to Power. "There were all those in-jokes, unstated allusions and what is now called body language which signify not just common courtesy but rather a common sympathy."

Earlier that year (there had been) a successful campaign to improve wages - and one that was notable for the degree of public sympathy teachers achieved as they stopped classes across the country in order to stage genteel protest marches.

That period appears in retrospect like a sepia-coloured snapshot from a much more distant era, one in which teachers negotiated wages with local authorities in the decent seclusion of the Burnham Committee, on which the NUT naturally had a built-in majority. It was a cosy affair - indeed, it was not so many years previously that the union's long-standing general secretary, Sir Ronald Gould, had declined to inform the annual conference how much he would be proposing for an increase. He and Sir William Alexander, the employers' leader, had been accustomed to hammer out the framework for an agreement at a private dinner the evening before the committee met.

Not this year however. Fearful of being left behind at a time when the Labour government was imposing a 3.5 per cent ceiling on public sector wages while private industry was awarding up to 15 per cent, the union had decided to press for an interim pay award in the year between the regular biennial settlement to boost salaries, which were demonstrably falling behind other professional workers.

At the conference in 1969, the union had demanded a flat-rate increase of Pounds 135, to be met by the employers with an offer of only Pounds 50. It was, Sir William Alexander said, the most that could be afforded.

A most effective campaign was staged for public sympathy, focusing on the Pounds 13 a week take-home pay of newly-qualified teachers. The Sun even found (or had found for it by the union's assiduous publicity department) a teacher's wife who complained: "My husband is a teacher. He is 25 and has been teaching for three years and he brings home roughly only Pounds 15 a week. Most of his school friends in other occupations earn twice as much. We want to buy a house. We want a family. We can have neither unless teachers get a drastic increase in salaries. They deserve it."

The national press, unused to white-collar protest, was intrigued in a way that it would not be a decade-and-a-half later in Mrs Thatcher's more rigorous era when teachers came to protest once again. In 1970, of course, the teachers had the advantage of campaigning against a Labour government approaching a general election, so Conservative newspapers could sympathetically report the sad plight of a professional class on its uppers.

The union had never staged a national protest before - indeed, since the 1920s it had rarely staged strikes at all. There had been local disputes but the NUT had always been cautious about engaging in disruptive tactics, frustrating its younger members in the 1950s and 60s by its unwillingness to confront the local authority employers. It was a moderation exploited by its more boisterous and militant breakaway rival, the National Association of Schoolmasters. The preponderance of headteachers, particularly in the NUT's upper echelons, discouraged disruption in schools.

Militancy though was scarcely in the nature of Sir Ronnie Gould, the former Somerset head who had been general secretary for nearly a quarter of a century and who was about to retire in 1970. He had been the dominant figure in the teaching profession for two decades, a forceful and hugely respected presence, symbolic of the respectability of teachers and never knowingly unconsulted about their work. It is probably impossible now to conceive the extent of his power and influence.

for militant young teachers, the campaign created a mood of optimism and solidarity. Margaret Ogden, then a young teacher in a London comprehensive, recalls: "I pushed my daughter - maybe both my daughters at times - in a pushchair on marches in London. Our mood was cheerful and optimistic. The policemen walking alongside were very sympathetic, friendly and supportive. We were earning peanuts and they were earning even less. When we went out on strike in the Eighties, the mood was different, more sombre. The police were stand-offish. They were earning more than we were by then."

Finally, on March 3 the Government intervened, just as 10,000 teachers from across the country lobbied Parliament. An angry Ted Short, the Education Minister who was himself a member of the union, visited the Burnham panel and came up with the money - not quite Pounds 135 but Pounds 120 - which was close enough for the strikes to be called off and the NUT to bask in the glow of triumph. Unlike a decade later, it had gained members through militancy and now claimed 318,000 - nearly 90 per cent of the profession.

Mr Short said through gritted teeth: "They would have done equally well without all the militant action. I hope we can now look forward to getting down to the task of giving teachers the professional status which their service to society merits." It was a refrain that would echo from the lips of ministers throughout the next 25 years.

The union had proved to itself that it could flex its muscles and government would find the money. The converse - that if government was paying, it would demand more say in what was being provided - was rather more slowly learned by teachers than by politicians.

The strikes had shown another thing too: that the profession was changing. The shock troops had been the newly-qualified young teachers, the products of the 1960s' expansion to meet the baby boom. They were young and radical - having just emerged from colleges and universities in a ferment of student protest.

Joining the TUC was a step that gave the old guard on the national executive something close to apoplexy. The NUT formally joined on May Day 1970, following prolonged internal debate. It seemed like a natural progression in the wake of the strikes and in the atmosphere of the times. Opponents of the move threatened challenges but none materialised. The step seemed an easy one to take, especially as the rivals in the NAS had already done so. The NUT moved blithely but decisively from being a professional association to a trade union and its image would subtly alter: looking after its members and their conditions of service would gradually come to dominate its public role.

Some, though, sensed an unwelcome change as the union started to talk about its members' rights more than children's issues. At least, that is what the public - and some old members - noticed.

The union was bound to change with the retirement of Sir Ronnie, but also with the election of 12 new members to the executive, including Doug McAvoy. The old guard would fade away; the union wanted to forget its pedestrian past and in doing so forgot that most teachers were, and would remain until the late 1980s, Conservative voters.

Punctuating the professional complacency though was a pointer to the future. It was a cloud no bigger than a man's hand, but it was a black one and it carried insinuations that the NUT would be decreasingly able to challenge persuasively in the years ahead as it became more partisan. Black Papers, written by discontented teachers and academics of what would soon become known as the radical Right, were beginning to challenge the state of state education. Their views tended to be dismissed by teachers as reactionary and irrelevant at a time when one had to be progressive, but they plainly struck a disquieting chord and one that lingered, especially with politicians.

Much of the criticism of state education was in the future in the summer of 1970: browse through the issues of The Teacher that year and you will see a rugged, pipe-smoking masculinity. Women teachers appear as decorative appendages, especially if they wear mini-skirts. Not that many of them did, at least at work - some schools were still sending home female staff who turned up in trouser suits. Attitudes therefore were not always progressive. In the very week of Sir Ronnie's triumphant conference apotheosis, the union's newspaper provocatively chose as its main comment piece a little number called "A Sound Thrashing is Best Sometimes", argued by one James Whyte.

"Let the so-called progressives ponder the rising statistics of delinquency and crime and ask themselves whether a few short, sharp shocks at the proper time might not have given second thoughts to the long-haired layabouts which our permissive society has produced" Tempus fugit, as an NUT delegate of 1970 might have said.


On the development of the Hard Left "They were an irritation and an embarrassment...

There were a lot of young teachers living in bedsits who could go to meetings and stay to the bitter end."

Don Winters Newcastle head ex-president and treasurer "It was very open about its tactics. I never kept my politics secret - unlike the Communists."

Dick North, Cambridge-educated maths teacher in Lambeth, veteran SWP member and leader of Rank and File "The Trots were a force to be reckoned with. ..I wouldn't pass the time of day - I used to shit on them from a great height from the platform using ridicule."

Max Morris Brent headteacher, former Communist and ex- president 1979-86

On headteachers being squeezed out "It was a mistake. It cost us members and lost us influence."

Fred Jarvis ex-general secretary On the membership "The great majority of the NUT are professional, committed, hard-working classroom teachers. Those who are activists are often what you would call social democrats who are extremely serious about their teaching commitment and very political in their attitude towards the NUT.

"But there is also the so-called Hard Left who, as far as I could see, did not give a damn about teaching or education and even less of a damn about their personal appearance or their responsibilities. They were yappers and because they did not do anything else with their lives - didn't go to football or concerts or any normal things - they were pretty well-organised."

Neil Kinnock, former Labour leader "I attended conference for 30 years. You could watch the growth of the Ultra Left together with a political correctness unheard of when I first went.

I could see it coming. The polarisation within conference has done the union no good at all."

Dennis Sale ex-divisional secretary for Bexley On teachers' action "It was a very exhilarating time because there were massive meetings of members throughout the country and you were able to say the things they wanted to hear of course. I believe we played the game very well."

Malcolm Horne Brent RE teacher and ex-president On the NUT's rejection of a pay settlement in 1986 "The division between the unions was unfortunate; the presentation of the case became unclear...

In retrospect, we probably would have protected our members better if we had co-operated more with the other unions."

Doug McAvoy general secretary 1986-88

On the corrosive effects of the long running pay dispute "School rugby and music were among the things we killed in the action. It stopped them for good."

Peter Griffin head and ex-president "It is as if somebody has lifted the lid off my school and all the professional ethos is evaporating. That is irreversible."

Michael Pipes head and past-president of NAHT "Even people I would regard as fairly moderate - family men with mortgages - have been turned into militants. Not in the banner waving sense but because they have very serious concerns. "

Philip McCracken history teacher On the decision to boycott preparation for the new GCSEs "That alone cost us 3000 to 4000 members...

We lost our best secondary innovators for something that was not an effective sanction against the Government and could only damage children."

Alan Evans former union education officer 1988-90

On the formation of a third left-wing group (in addition to the RANK AND FILE and the Socialist Teachers Alliance) called The Campaign for a Democratic and Fighting Union "A poxy little organisation."

Sean Dougherty a London Trotskyist "It was a bit like being the Contemptible Little Army in the First World War. There was great hostility from the Left. They resented the fact that we could command a level of support that they never had."

Mary Hufford CDFU founder and ex-deputy general secretary On being elected deputy general secretary "Basically McAvoy completely isolated me...I thought I would be a figurehead for women on the Left in the union but, as a woman, working for the NUT is a nightmare.

It is a totally male-dominated union and hostility and bullying is commonplace. They are all boys together. It is a beer-drinking culture. .. Women should not have to work in those circumstances."

Mary Hufford On his attack on Militant Tendency at Bounemouth 1990 "I encouraged members to believe that the union had not been railroaded by Militant and was not hell-bent on a route that was not acceptable to them ...I felt it had to be done then...it was partially successful."

Doug McAvoy, general secretary 1994-96

On relations with Education Secretary Gillian Shephard "I think the meetings we have are more productive. Probably the best example of that is the decision to have a review of the assessment and testing methods. I think it has shown the union to be still a very effective organisation."

Doug McAvoy On relations with NUT " The unions would be doing teaching a big service if they reminded the public sometimes that it is an important and enjoyable job."

Gillian Shephard On the Blunkett incident "It was a stupid thing to have done, but retain a sense of proportion- it did not actually happen in the conference itself."

Bernard Regan, NUT member not involved in the Blunkett protest On the future "Ordinary teachers can't get to meetings like they used to because of the pressure of meetings and work at school... Nowadays the people standing for election are just names, the ordinary membership has no idea what the political stance of candidates really is."

Don Winters ex-president and treasurer "Some of the gains of the past have been lost in the past 10 or 12 years and there is a continuing threat to some of the principles on which the union has fought...Without any doubt, the press-ure on individuals will continue to be intense and that pressure will require a strong union to protect and support them."

Doug McAvoy "Mr McAvoy would like to be in a position of influence on a Labour government but you have to look carefully ...We don't want to water our policies down to accomodate Labour. We want to talk on our own terms... "

Carole Regan, president 1996.

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