McAvoy prepares for finale

9th April 2004 at 01:00
After 40 years of serving the National Union of Teachers, Doug McAvoy is facing his final conference. William Stewart reports

If Doug McAvoy is feeling at all sentimental about the prospect of his final annual conference as National Union of Teachers general secretary, before retirement in June, he is not showing it.

This weekend's gathering in Harrogate may be his last after nearly 40 years' active service for the NUT, but it will be just another conference, he insists.

Just another knife-edge battle between the executive and hard Left? Just another Easter of newspaper headlines about chaos in the classrooms and education secretaries being bundled into cupboards by crazed activists?

Mr McAvoy may not be too misty-eyed about his last conference, for the event is unlikely to be the highlight of his career. But at least with Education Secretary Charles Clarke and his Department for Education and Skills officials spurning the spa town, the perennial stand-off between a section of the delegates and the Government can be avoided.

When the leader of Britain's largest teaching union leaves his job this summer, he can point to a healthy membership which has risen from 183,042 in 1989 to 267,671 today. The union is also financially well-placed, recently reporting a surplus despite promotion campaigns costing more than pound;1 million.

On the other hand, the union finds itself isolated by its refusal to sign the workforce agreement. It is not on speaking terms with the Government and the other teaching unions are snarling. Provocative advertisements taunting their stance have been seen as less than brotherly by the Trades Union Congress.

Mr McAvoy is obviously needled by the Labour administration's reaction: "I find it difficult to accept that a mature government has to resent the NUT's refusal to sign up to things which I think it is right to oppose."

He believes his principled position, safeguarding teachers' professional status from encroachment by support staff, is popular with members.

However, the Baron of Hamilton House (the NUT's headquarters) has not survived for so long by courting popularity. His mixture of intelligence, guile and, at times, strong-armed tactics have meant that he has usually been one step ahead of adversaries at conference and within the union's executive.

The former maths and physical education teacher began his NUT career in the 1960s as an activist in the Newcastle area.

A contemporary from those early days remembers him as "small, dark and handsome" and an "eloquent speaker".

His obvious talent was quickly spotted by regional NUT officials and by 1975 he had risen to become deputy general secretary.

He came into his own during the "bloodiest" episode in teacher union history, the 1984-87 pay-dispute. With the then general secretary, Fred Jarvis, out of action following a road accident, Mr McAvoy stepped into the breach.

A series of strikes led to millions of pupils being sent home and teachers refused to take on non-teaching duties. By the time the union was looking for a new leader in 1989, Mr McAvoy was seen as the natural choice and would undoubtedly have been appointed even if the NUT had not held its first leadership election (under new legislation).

In his first conference as leader at Bournemouth in 1990, he told left-wing activists they were out of touch. They should stop talking to themselves and go back to their schools to talk to their members.

The theme has continued ever since. He sees his greatest achievement as taking the sting out of the battle for control of the union between its various political factions. The Easter newspaper cuttings bearing "Chaos in the classrooms" headlines have hardly yellowed by the time he has put into place strategies to undermine the strike calls, voted for by conference, that he knows the mainstream members will not stomach.

He remembers scenes in the 1970s and 1980s when he had to fight his way through crowds on the pavement, demonstrating against their own union, as he went into work. "That is gone," said Mr McAvoy. "Conference may look as if it is still a battleground but it is not. It is much more united than it was."

In his time he has dealt with eight education secretaries. The low points have been when Kenneth Baker, the Conservative minister, withdrew direct pay negotiations, and the time David Blunkett, now Home Secretary, had to be hustled into a room at conference in Blackpool after being pursued by angry delegates.

One colleague remembers Estelle Morris, former education secretary, telling Mr McAvoy that she had too much respect for his debating skills to risk getting into an argument with him.

Those skills will be on display again this weekend at a conference that, when pressed, Mr McAvoy does admit he will find a little different.

"I will have mixed feelings about it," he relented. "It is a fantastic job.

It is the best job in education and I have been tremendously fortunate to have had it."

JOURNEY TO THE TOP

* Born January 1939 and brought up in Felling, a coal-mining town near Gateshead

* Educated at Windy Nook primary school, County Durham, and Jarrow grammar, where Jack Cunningham, the former Labour Cabinet minister, was in the year below.

* Leaves school at 18 to become a mining surveyor at Windy Nook pit.

* Attends Culham college, an all-male teacher training college, near Abingdon, after uncertainty about the future of the coal industry leads him to reconsider his choice of career

* In 1959 starts teaching maths and PE at Warrier Street school, a boys'

secondary in the East End of Newcastle, and eventually goes on to teach in two other secondary moderns in the North-east.

* Starts to become active in the NUT around 1965 and by 1967 has become Newcastle branch secretary. A national executive seat follows in 1970 and he is appointed deputy general secretary in 1975.

* Makes his mark during the 1984-87 pay dispute filling in for an unwell Fred Jarvis, then general secretary, and is elected to succeed him in 1989.

* In 1994 only narrowly beats Mary Hufford to win a second term, but scores a far more convincing victory against Christine Blower in his third general secretary election in 1999.

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