Band of brothers

26th May 2006 at 01:00
The teaching unions are staffed by many former classroom workers. How do they compare the two roles, asks Emma Burns

The idea of working for a union sends a shiver down the spine of most of us, I suspect. We imagine a life filled with tedious meetings where people argue pointlessly over tiny details and nothing can be decided until everyone has had their say at least 15 times. But is this fair?

Not according to John Bangs, head of education and equal opportunities at the National Union of Teachers. After 18 years in the classroom, he has had 15 working at the NUT's London headquarters and is breathtakingly positive about it.

"I love this job," he says. "It's great. It covers the waterfront - primary, secondary and special schools, ICT, literacy and numeracy, privatisation - there's a whole range of responsibilities. It's immensely varied, with a lot of professional autonomy and the opportunity to be very creative. It's a real privilege."

But what about the boredom? John is having none of it. He stresses the unpredictability of life in a union.

"In teaching, although you can't predict how your lessons are going to go, the framework and structure of your day is fairly well determined," he says. "It is not like that in the union. You don't sit at your desk and work incrementally from one thing to the next. You can end up going somewhere you would never have expected in your wildest dreams.

"You can be sure that if you've had a good morning you are going to have a bastard of an afternoon. If you can't take the Exocet from the South West, don't take the job."

As for meetings, he says you have to be on your toes. "There is a two-way exchange of views which I really enjoy." For all his enthusiasm, even John admits conference can be a little soporific. "That's when the eyelids tend to go down," he confesses.

He estimates that about 250 - roughly 30 per cent - of the officials working for Britain's teaching unions were formerly classroom teachers themselves. Some switch to gain experience that will allow them to get a job with a local education authority or perhaps a headship. Others see it as a career in itself, with good conditions of service and good prospects.

The pay of senior officials is on a par with primary heads, although of course the holidays are not.

For some - such as Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers - it provides the crowning finale to a successful career in teaching. He had combined his career as a headteacher in Nottinghamshire with casework for the NAHT, trying to sort out problems for his fellow heads and deputies, for about 20 years when the top job fell vacant.

"As a council member for nine years and national president, I had seen the breadth of the organisation," he says. "I had had meetings and negotiations with the great, the good and the not so good - not thinking of Chris Woodhead there at all, of course.

"So when the job came up, I thought 'Why not?'."

After a rather rocky path to the job - involving a challenge to the appointment of another candidate without an election - Mick started as general secretary on pound;90,000 a year in September. He spent the first few months in the job he is travelling the country meeting NAHT members and finding out their views.

"I want to reassure our members who are working flat out to raise standards of education in this country that we are fighting for them," he says.

For others, such as Elaine Kay, regional secretary for the northern region of the NUT, a job in the union can provide a badly needed way out of teaching. Elaine who made the break in 2000 after 26 years in the classroom, 12 of those as a head, says: "It was a conscious decision to leave and seek something else. I felt I had done all I could do and given all I could give.

"It was a very, very traumatic decision to take - I loved the school, the staff, and the children, but the opportunity to work full-time for the union came up and I grabbed it."

Now she negotiates with local education authorities, governing bodies and headteachers and provides training for local officers and teachers, averaging 2,000 miles a month in her car.

"I find conference frustrating because... can't participate in the way I used tobe able to as a voting delegate - I haveto sit on my hands," she says.

"But itis very valuable. You can become insular and blinkered if you don't have a forum like conference to remind you of the different perspectives that other areas have.

"Much of my job is helping, support and advising people which is very rewarding. That doesn't mean to say we always win. It is difficult when you see dedicated colleagues who have given a lot of their time to the children feeling under pressure, upset, and undermined and undervalued. That makes me angry.

"Teachers value those people who remember what it is like, though it doesn't mean to say you can't be a union official without having been a teacher."

John Bangs concurs. "Having been a teacher is a background factor in your favour in a teaching union, but it isn't an absolute prerequisite, so long as you have the humility to listen to teachers who are our members and the commitment to support them.

"The worst thing you can do is bea bureaucrat sitting at your desk fantasising about what teachers ought to be doing. You have to be able constantly to imagine what it is like in the classroom.

"I love getting into schools. Then you see all the kinds of developments you have been dealing with at headquarters in action. It is a real concentration of information."

There are new skills you have to learn too: in John's case, office management, how to write persuasively and how to put the NUT's views across to the media.

It mostly goes well but not always.

"I remember an interviewer on Sky trying to trap me into criticising the entire victorious British rugby team because of their responseto something we said about sponsorship in schools," he laughs. "I just stopped speaking.

There was this silence on screen."

Then there was the clip that ended up on Auntie's Bloomers. John arrived at a BBC regional studio to find someone already sitting in the chair in front of the camera where he was meant to be.

"Someone bellowed down the line that he shouldn't be there so he got up just as the presenter said something like 'And now over to John Bangs of the NUT'. All you saw was a picture of the back of this man leaving the screen. Auntie's Bloomers used that mercilessly, year after year."

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