Man who made the ATL a force to be reckoned with

17th February 2006 at 00:00
Peter Smith, the teachers' leader who transformed a fuddy-duddy grammar school association into the third force in education politics, died last Friday, aged 65. Before he retired as general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) in December 2002, Mr Smith had gatecrashed the corridors of power in Whitehall.

He was also treading on the heels of the National Union of Teachers and Nasuwt with 160,000 members drawn from nursery schools to higher and further education.

The former English teacher from south London entered union politics with the Assistant Masters' Association in 1974 and earned his spurs defending teachers in dismissal cases and fighting local authorities over redundancies and working conditions. But it was 14 years before he became general secretary of the union, after it had merged with the Association of Assistant Mistresses to become AMMA.

Mr Smith, who was married to a leading sixth form college principal, led the way into the new further education sector after colleges gained independence from local authorities in 1993. AMMA was renamed the ATL to signify this expansion soon after. He also moved into the wider school employment arena by enrolling classroom assistants as members.

Mr Smith was adept at sensing the drift of educational policy, both Conservative and New Labour, and built a good relationship with several ministers, notably Gillian Shephard and Estelle Morris. His influence went higher: just before he retired he managed to secure Tony Blair as the key speaker at an ATL conference in 2001.

At the same time, Mr Smith drew the ATL slowly but surely into the Trades Union Congress and became a member of the TUC general council. He was a genial, amusing man with many friends who could adopt a poker face when bargaining over teachers' salaries and working conditions. A skilful negotiator, he regarded his participation as the head of ATL in the 2003 national workload agreement as one of his lasting legacies.

Mr Smith was a subtle speaker and writer and dealt adeptly with the media, where he was known as the soundbite king.

He also had financial acumen, having started his working life as a banker; he took the ATL out of its fusty Bloomsbury office and established it in its present prime site in Northumberland Street in the heart of Whitehall.

He sold new-style insurance policies and mortgages to his members. He was also an active member of the Equal Opportunities Commission for six years from 1994.

Peter Smith was a workaholic who drained the cup of life to the full. His work-hard, play-hard lifestyle took its toll and he was forced to take extended sick leave followed by retirement in 2002. He was awarded the CBE the following year.

Commenting on his death, Mary Bousted, his successor as ATL general secretary, said: "Under Peter's leadership ATL became a union which punched above its weight with real influence in politics and policy-making. He left behind a well-rounded organisation which believed, as he did, that a strong union fights over education policy as vigorously as it does in the macho arena of pay and conditions."

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