Happy to stay off the wall

27th July 2001 at 01:00
The new general secretary of PAT has no plans to change its image. Biddy Passmore and Warwick Mansell report.

The new general secretary of Britain's smallest classroom union says she has no plans to change its eccentric image.

"I would rather be surreal than bland," said Jean Gemmell. Perhaps it's just as well, as the Professional Association of Teachers, which elected her to the post last month, has a reputation for being, well, surreal.

The union's conference, perhaps unsurprisingly given that it is the only one to be held during the newspaper silly season, can be relied upon to provide some of education's more off-the-wall suggestions.

Two years ago, there was the idea that dogs could be used as classroom assistants - a motion that was passed. In 1996, a member suggested the creation of a new secretary of state for the removal of body hair.

The proposal came after American research had shown that men with more body hair were, on average, more intelligent, all-over shaving was advocated to create a more equal society. Mrs Gemmell said the resulting press coverage, including that in The TES, has irritated some in the union. But she is sanguine about it.

"It would be satisfying to be written up more earnestly and more often, but I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. Our main service is to our members, and our service to them on an individual basis is second to none."

Mrs Gemmell sees the independent, non-political union's size as its strength, allowing it to adopt a more personal approach to members. Little things, such as the fact that those telephoning the union are greeted by a "human being, not a machine", make a difference.

The union's size has been under scrutiny in recent weeks. Latest figures suggest it has lost nearly a fifth of its members this year. Its audited membership, collated in January, was 34,787. But last month, only 21,543 members were registered to vote in Mrs Gemmell's election.

Mrs Gemmell said the discrepancy arose partly because the union has 6,000 student members, who cannot vote. But around 7,000 members were taken off the books in the spring having not renewed their subscriptions. The union says the fall as "not unusual" and expects next January's figures to be up on this year's.

ThePAT is well-known as the no-strike union, and the new general secretary has no plans to change this. This is understandable, as it was this that lay behind her own decision to join the union. Early in her career, she was appalled by a National Union of Teachers' demand to strike on the day that her first exam group was due to take physics O-level.

"There will always be a place for a union which does not believe that industrial action is appropriate when the effects are felt by children, and not by the managers and government to whom it was directed," she said.

She became a leading member of the Secondary Heads Association while head of Fernwood school, a socially-mixed 11-16 comprehensive in Nottingham, where she stressed inclusivity ("We tried never to exclude") and high standards ("In my last Office for Standards in Education inspection, it was deemed outstanding.") She was SHA's convener for Nottingham and became a member of the association's national council. She returned to the PAT in January 1999 as senior professional officer, becoming deputy general secretary three months later.

When general secretary Kay Driver left in April this year to become chief executive of the British Horse Society, she moved up to acting general secretary.

"She's a very warm person," said John Dunford, of the SHA. "Tough, but with a sense of humour. She can make telling points briefly and wittily." He recalled Mrs Gemmell amusing Estelle Morris, now Education Secretary, by telling her that one of her main duties as head had been to protect staff from government documents ... by binning them. Her priorities, for a union that has members "from nursery to tertiary" across the UK, is to stress the need for teachers to work as a team to seize back the professional initiative.

She sees the recent pay and conditions deal for Scottish teachers as both an asset and a liability - an asset because it is an agreed settlement, but a liability because it set a 35-hour working week. The union is against this, but in favour of setting statutory non-contact time.

Mrs Gemmell has a colourful life outside the union. She is probably the only general secretary who could put on a cabaret to professional standard to enliven its conference.

She has worked in the performing arts all her life. As a Kent grammar school girl, she dreamed of becoming a professional dancer. As a student of maths and physics at Reading University, she turned to choreography and helped to found the university's operatic society.

Throughout her 16 years as a head in Nottingham, she directed musicals and operas. She is still busy with rehearsals, currently for a production of The Pirates of Penzance at the Pomegranate theatre in Chesterfield.

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