New leader pledges unity

2nd July 2004 at 01:00
William Stewart meets Steve Sinnott, newly elected general secretary of Britain's biggest teaching union

The largest teaching union's isolation over the school workforce agreement looks set to end, after its new leader urged all parties to "revisit" their positions.

In his first interview since being elected general secretary of the National Union of Teachers on Tuesday, Steve Sinnott clearly signalled his intention to bring his union back into the fold. He stressed that the NUT was correct not to sign the deal in January 2003, because it allowed assistants to teach whole classes alone.

"The position is clear," he said. "Teachers teach and assistants assist."

Education Secretary Charles Clarke's subsequent decision to cut the NUT out of discussions between unions, Government and the employers had been wrong, said Mr Sinnott.

He told The TES that the NUT would not sign the agreement, but the overall situation could change because of the recent decision of Unison - the biggest support staff union - to renegotiate the agreement, and threats from the National Association of Head Teachers to withdraw over funding.

"This is an opportunity for us all to reflect on the different positions and to try and find a way in which we can move forward," he said.

Mr Sinnott was speaking with the congratulations of supporters still ringing in his ears, only hours after discovering he won the leadership election by a distance that he believes gives him the mandate he needs to carry out his policies.

The polished desk in his new office was still completely clear but it will not remain that way for long. Not only must he sort out the NUT's relations with Government, but also with the other education unions, which he admits, at the moment, "could not be worse".

He made his goal of professional unity and a single merged teaching union key features of his election campaign.

This could be difficult to achieve given that the new leaders of the other two major classroom unions are not known to share his passion for merger.

But Mr Sinnott said he felt it could be a reality in the "medium term".

"The first thing is to try to build the best relationships we can," he said. "We have to deal frankly, openly and honestly with people, perhaps looking more closely at the things we disagree on and then see where we go from there."

Mr Sinnott must also try to hold together a union notorious for its factional in-fighting. Perhaps conscious of this, despite being left out in the cold for years by his predecessor Doug McAvoy, the new general secretary said he would make the most of all the talented people available to him, regardless of which wing of the union they came from.

He said he had detected a desire among NUT executive members to pull together. This new mood of unity was confirmed by a prominent figure on the left, though he added that Mr Sinnott would "get into deep waters fairly quickly" if his promise to work with all factions of the union was not kept.

Other changes on the horizon are likely to include a permanent end to the Easter ritual of NUT conference delegates heckling the education secretary.

It has been on hold anyway for the past two years, after pointed snubs from Mr Clarke. But Mr Sinnott told The TES that he planned to re-examine the whole issue of politicians addressing conference, saying it was not something to which all delegates looked forward.

His low profile during his years as deputy general secretary means that he is rather an unknown quantity. A fellow teaching leader confessed to never having clapped eyes on Mr Sinnott, despite having attended scores of meetings with NUTofficials.

Asked about his personal qualities, the new general secretary described himself as honest, frank and someone who respected other points of view and tried to resolve difficulties.

He added: "I am somebody who is determined and somebody who can fight. You don't get to be general secretary of the NUT without knowing how to do that.

"I know when to use my fists and when to use my feet and can use both if I have to."


* The election was conducted under a single transferable vote system that allows voters to select candidates in order of preference.

* Steve Sinnott, deputy general secretary, gained 20,359 first preference votes; Ian Murch, West Yorkshire national executive member, 15,360; John Bangs, head of education, 10,109, and Martin Powell-Davies, Lewisham branch secretary, 6,482.

* It was not until votes for Mr Powell-Davies and Mr Bangs had been redistributed according to second preferences that Mr Sinnott received the overall majority he needed to win, with 27,287 votes to Mr Murch's 22,134.

* Turn-out was 21.7 per cent, with only 52,310 of 240,681 members who were entitled to vote doing so.


* Born in Liverpool, 1951

* Educated at West Derby comprehensive in Liverpool before taking a social sciences degree at Middlesex polytechnic and a PGCE at Edge Hill college in Ormskirk, Lancashire

* Starts teaching humanities at Shorefields comprehensive, Toxteth, Liverpool, in 1975 and four years later moves to Broughton high, near Preston, and becomes head of economics and business studies

* Joins the NUT as a student teacher in 1974 and goes on to become school rep at Shorefields. By 1986 becomes national executive member

* In 1994, becomes the first national NUT president to have attended a comprehensive, and is elected deputy general secretary

* As deputy he is largely sidelined by Doug McAvoy and left to concentrate on international issues.

* Once a Communist party member "a very long time ago", he has been in the Labour party for 25 years and within the NUT has been backed by the "soft left" faction.

* Married to Mary, he has two children in their 20s and is due to become a grandfather in February.

* Interests include cycling and supporting Everton.

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