'I never thought Iwould be leader'

25th March 2005 at 00:00
The two biggest classroom unions have new chiefs. Dorothy Lepkowska and William Stewart (below) find out how they're preparing for the trials of Easter.

Chris Keates can have a lie-in when her union's conference in Brighton begins on Monday.

On any normal weekday, the general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers would be on the 6.10am train from her native Birmingham to London, having risen at 4.45am.

She could probably do with the rest. This is Ms Keates's 27th consecutive year attending the union's conference, and her first as general secretary.

At 53, the mother of two, who also has a grandchild, is the first female general secretary of the NASUWT, and the sole woman leader in the list of the 10 biggest TUC-affiliated unions.

"In 1978 I was a teacher delegate, working at a Birmingham primary. I never thought for a moment I would be general secretary one day, but opportunities arose along the way and I took them," she said.

"I am driven, and always have been, by a total commitment to improving the pay and conditions for teachers. You can only have a successful education system if you value and look after the people delivering it."

Not surprisingly pay and conditions, workforce remodelling and the pensions row are expected to dominate proceedings. The union's top bugbear, pupil behaviour, is also high on the agenda.

Stephen Twigg, the school standards minister, and the Tory and Lib-Dem education spokesmen, will address delegates.

There is an air of anticipation that the general election may be announced during the same week, to meet campaign deadlines for May 5.

Ms Keates expects full and frank debate on the issues concerning her members. "There is a lot of anxiety over the way the new pay structure will be administered and whether heads will treat individual staff fairly.

"No one can predict how it will work but potentially pay for many teachers may be higher under the new system than with the existing allowances."

And she remains steadfast in her attitude towards workforce remodelling.

"Teachers who tell us that it isn't being implemented in their schools should be aware that those heads are breaking the law. It does not matter what the headteachers' unions do - the law is the law and the workforce agreement will be implemented."

While the creation of a single teachers' union seems further away than ever, Ms Keates has invited Steve Sinnott, the National Union of Teachers'

general secretary, to address a fringe meeting on global education.

"Steve and I may have different views on many things, but we have always worked very well together. I am delighted he's coming," she said.

Away from the main business of the debating chamber and fringe meetings, the conference will also see a first in the union's protocol for entertaining. As it rests traditionally with the partner of the general secretary to host a reception for dignitaries and guests, Ms Keates's partner, Les Lawrence, a Birmingham Conservative councillor and cabinet member for education, is the first husband to be doing the honours.

"As a politician he's not remotely daunted by the prospect. Anyway, he has no choice. I just remind him about the amount of street cred he gets being married to me," Ms Keates said.

* dorothy.lepkowska@tes.co.uk

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