Keates has NUT in her sights

22nd October 2004 at 01:00
Formidable new NASUWT leader says it will overtake its rival as top teachers' union. William Stewart reports

It was the result everyone expected: on Tuesday Chris Keates was confirmed as the new general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union Women Teachers.

So were congratulations in order first thing in the morning? No, not until NASUWT's officials were informed later that day, said the leader of the country's second largest teaching union.

It was a typical reply from a woman who has won a reputation as a tough, no nonsense, trade unionist through her thoroughness and "awe-inspiring" attention to detail.

But Ms Keates, 52, also has her eye on the big picture. She told The TES she thinks the NASUWT will overtake its rival, the National Union of Teachers, as the biggest teaching union.

Latest TUC figures show it is just 16,310 members behind, something she attributes to the union's partnership with Government, which she contrasts with her rival's confrontational approach. "What the NASUWT has demonstrated is that size is not the only issue," she said.

"We have shown you can be effective and influential by being pragmatic and willing to talk rather than taking an oppositional approach that allows you to keep your policies 100-per-cent intact but delivers nothing."

That partnership, with its numerous meetings, has meant a huge personal commitment for a woman, already known as a workaholic, who confesses she does not practice what she preaches on work-life balance.

She juggles a family life - she has a 12 year-old a son and a grown-up daughter and two-year-old grandson - with a gruelling routine involving several trips a week on the 6.15am Birmingham to Euston train.

But as well as the hard work, there is also a warm side - and she can take a joke against herself. She once had to judge the union's angling competition although she considers fishing a barbarous sport. "I was impressed by their enthusiasm but kind of boxed in to the prize giving," she said.

Ms Keates is the first women member of the NASUWT, which has a 61 per cent female membership and an 80 per cent male executive. She said: "I have never stood for any post on purely a women's ticket but I want to see barriers to women achieving their potential removed."

It is said that if you cut Ms Keates in half, the letters NASUWT would run through her like a stick of Blackpool rock. And she is beginning to show a talent for the killer quote. Her predecessor, Nigel de Gruchy, a master of the soundbite, would be proud. For example, on hearing the news that the private firm Capita was to be given another Government contract, she said:

"They are not referred to by Private Eye magazine as 'Crapita' for nothing."

And her marriage to Les Lawrence, a leading Conservative councillor in her home city of Birmingham, did not prevent her teasing Tim Collins, Tory education spokesman, after he addressed the NASUWT conference last year.

She thanked him for the part the former Tory press officer played in "putting the Conservative party where it is today".

Her commitment to the workload deal between the Government, unions and employers, is total. However, while nobody can argue about cutting working hours and red tape, the latest deal brokered by the partnership - which includes all major teaching unions except the NUT - may be harder to sell.

New agreements on senior staff pay are likely to mean management allowance cuts for some. But Ms Keates counters that it will also mean pay gains, by ensuring qualification for upper pay scale level three is not determined by quotas and limits on funding.

"If people lose money they are not going to lose their total salaries.

People are talking as though they are going to lose their livelihoods," she said.

But anyone expecting the NASUWT to agree a joint line with the Government on all issues under Ms Keates is likely to be disappointed. Having spent the last year loyally standing in for Eamonn O'Kane, who died of cancer in May, she is now determined to make her own mark.

Issues in her sights include the Children Bill, which she is concerned could add to teachers' burdens, threats to pensions and the workforce deal.

The death of the much-loved Eamonn O'Kane means, though, that victory celebrations have been muted. She said: "I am doing a job I never dreamed I would be doing. But my appointment is tinged with sadness. I just wish it had come about through different circumstances."

BIOGRAPHY

* Graduates in archaeology and history from Leicester university

* Teaches humanities in two Birmingham comprehensive schools from 1974 to1994, before becoming an advisory teacher for Birmingham LEA

* In 1976, after serving on the local Union of Women Teachers executive, becomes school representative and local executive member of the Birmingham association of the newly formed NASUWT

* Elected local president in 1983 and Birmingham general secretary in 1986, a role held until 1997

* Elected to NASUWT national executive in 1987

* Appointed assistant secretary in 1998 and deputy general secretary in April 2001

* In May 2004 appointed acting general secretary, on the recommendation of Eamonn O'Kane, general secretary, who died later that month.

WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT HER

Christina McAnea, Unison head of education: "We are really, really pleased about Chris's appointment. She is somebody you want to have on your side in argument and she has been a fantastic ally for Unison and school support staff."

John Bangs, NUT head of education: "An absolute workaholic, she really puts the hours in."

Nigel de Gruchy, former NASUWT general secretary: "As soon as she came on the national scene I could see straight away that civil servants recognised her for all the talents she had, she impressed them right from the word go."

Tim Brighouse, former Birmingham chief education officer and now London schools commissioner: "People used to say in Birmingham that if you were a teacher who wanted somebody to represent you then you couldn't get any better.

"She will master her brief, cover every angle and will argue fiercely on teachers' side."

David Miliband, school standards minister: "Chris Keates has a clear vision for the future of education. She is a tough negotiator and will be a worthy successor to Eamonn O'Kane."

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