High profile, high pay...high achiever;Union Conferences

10th April 1998 at 01:00
Nigel de Gruchy is tired. He has hosted a pre-conference press conference, a French film crew has just left after interviewing him about school security and he has now heard of a last-minute hitch to his anti-bureaucracy ballot.

He accepts a small glass of Sancerre from his secretary. "We've dotted every i and crossed every t on the ballot, and now I learn that unofficial postal strikes mean some of the papers aren't getting through," he said. "And have you seen today's Financial Times?" he asks, revealing a picture of himself in a table of the highest-paid union leaders (pound;76,537, including benefits). "Worth every penny, mind you," he said. And it's difficult to argue. Nigel de Gruchy, since taking over as general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, has worked hard to raise the profile of his union.

After every Government announcement he is available for interview and his office has the fastest fax in the West.

Despite the Nigelisms, as they are known in the trade, Mr de Gruchy has proved to be more than a soundbite. It was his union's High Court victory in 1993 which made a workload boycott legal, but "workload" was code for teachers' opposition to the national curriculum and its tests. His gamble allowed other unions to follow, and eventually the Government was forced to back down and call in Ron Dearing to review the curriculum and find a compromise.

Five years later, Mr de Gruchy finds himself in familiar territory. Teachers, he says, are still finding themselves swamped by paperwork and form-filling. And Labour's raft of initiatives and development plans is making matters worse. "New Labour has brought with it some new problems, and many of the old ones remain," he said.

He has decided to call the Department for Education and Employment's bluff and secure the implementation of the recommendations of its own working party on reducing the bureaucratic burden on teachers. His members are expected to vote overwhelmingly to start action in the summer term to drop activities not directly linked to teaching.

Another important debate at this week's annual conference in Scarborough will be one which proposes that the biggest single threat to standards is "the presence of a small minority of pupils with severe behavioural difficulties". The union has fought a number of high-profile cases supporting members who refuse to teach children excluded for bad behaviour who return to school after appeal.

Mr de Gruchy has said that he'd rather badly-behaved pupils played truant than have them in school disrupting classes.

He also makes an important point. Governments cannot expect "care in the classroom" for children with behavioural problems without providing extra support - or preferably in the union's view sending them to alternative institutions.

There will be other calls for industrial action this week. Conference will be asked to support a campaign of resistance to any initiative which increases teachers' hours and the union's national executive has been asked to take direct action if necessary to secure proper pay rises.

The chair of the education and employment select committee, dubbed by the union as Margaret "Holiday" Hodge, can expect her ears to burn at delegates' reactions to her proposals to end the long summer holidays and to pay teachers by results.

Mr de Gruchy can expect a warm reception. He is a traditionalist, and finds himself fully at home with Mr Blunkett's penchant for homework, school uniforms, whole-class teaching and didacticism.

Not all his members agree with him: most do. The NASUWT conference is perhaps the most fun. It is usually a good-tempered affair. Delegates will make their grievances, often backed up by a colourful anecdote. It could only have been at an NASUWT conference that a delegate could stand up and say that the Darrens, Deans and Damiens will never hack it educationally, and get away with it.

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