Nice guy with sharp edges;Union conferences;Interview;Peter Smith

26th March 1999 at 00:00
Union leader Peter Smith's polite manner hides a tough negotiator. Karen Thornton meets the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers

Peter Smith speaks carefully. After each question, there is a pause. Every response seems considered and thoughtfully delivered, every change of tone is measured.

However, his speaking voice and polite manner disguise the small barbs which become apparent when reading back the notes of his conversation. He comes close to accusing teachers of whingeing and suggesting their job is uniquely stressful - apassing reference perhaps all the more heartfelt because of a recent non-teacher redundancy within his family.

But the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers relaxes and takes on ajokier, more informal persona when the conversation turns to reminiscences of former teachers, or dolls' houses (an expensive hobby; his admiration of the craftsmanship involved perhaps reflects his own attention to detail).

"He's the kind of person you can do business with," says an official from another teaching union. "He's very sharp, very generous in his relations with people in other unions. He's like all general secretaries - very canny. But you expect them to be fairly sharp and fairly cautious."

Born and bred in London, Mr Smith went to Haberdashers' Aske's boys' school and then to Oxford, graduating with a degree in English language and literature. After two years in banking, he changed track and taught English for 11 years in selective boys' schools, joining what was then the quaintly-titled Assistant Masters Association.

In the Seventies, the world of opera production seemed about to offer an alternative career path. But instead, in 1974 he went to work for the AMA, which merged with the equivalent female union in 1978, becoming the Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association. He became deputy general secretary of the association in 1988, and three years later took the top job.

He oversaw the union's change of name to the ATL, recruited new members in further education, and - last year - led the union into the TUC and sought involvement in the Government'scontroversial education action zones.

"He pulled AMMA around from what was a fairly nondescript outfit heading nowhere to something fairly respectable," says a former colleague.

"There are many facets to him. He's quite a cautious person in terms of the way he speaks, but quite broad-minded, worldly and cultured. He can be frustrating to deal with in that he's slightly wilful, but overall he's one of education's nice guys who's had to play dirty from time to time."

Next week, Peter Smith will arrive at ATL's annual assembly as its first general secretary to face a contested election. He won 75 per cent of the ballot, but only around a quarter of members bothered to vote. He was unsuccessfully challenged by Gill Sage, a former member of the union's legal department.

He admits he would have been deeply hurt if he had not been re-elected. "Essentially to be sacked would be not merely deeply hurtful because of the personal impact, but because there is so much more to do and a lot of the success - that sounds dreadfully pompous - has been because of me, not in spite of me."

At the conference in Harrogate the burning issue will be the Green Paper - with its offer of more money in return for appraisal and performance-related pay. Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett will be addressing delegates just before or after a motion urging the union to oppose PRP.

"Our members are strongly opposed to it," says Mr Smith. "Managed properly, the Green Paper provides major opportunities. But at the moment, teachers are interpreting it as a threat."

He sees his job as getting members to understand the "real" agenda - that the Government is "absolutely committed to changing the basis on which teachers are paid" - and implies that a change is needed.

There's no evidence, he says, that a significant pay rise without other changes would solve the problems of recruiting and retaining teachers.

Mr Smith, who is married with two grown-up children, has been a member of the Equal Opportunities Commission since 1994. He fears the Government's proposals could discriminate against women teachers, given that pay is linked to size of school, and most of the teachers in small (primary) schools are women.

Women who take career breaks to have children may also find it harder to demonstrate the consistently good performance needed to break through the proposed threshold to higher pay scales.

However, a former ATL employee questions his commitment in practice to equal opportunities principles, saying: "He is not a man of principle, he is a man of convenience. He is a cautious man. Leaders should pin their colours to the mast."

Mr Smith sees little mileage in proposals for a single teaching union - one of the ATL conference motions suggests renaming the campaign Unity 3000 instead of 2000. But he's more hopeful about forming an effective education lobby within the TUC, now that the ATL is affiliated alongside its two bigger cousins, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers and the National Union of Teachers.

"The challenge for trade unions is to persuade this Government - or any other - that teacher unions are part of the solution rather than part of the problem that needs to be terminally cauterised," he says.

"The health unions place enormous emphasis on patient care. That's why the status of doctors and nurses is so high. They don't appear to be constantly whingeing.

"The message they are putting across is they matter because patients matter. The message from the teacher unions has to be teachers matter because children matter."

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