Steve Sinnott: 1951-2008

11th April 2008 at 01:00
'He gave me light at the end of the tunnel'

The image of Steve Sinnott campaigning for teachers here and abroad is a familiar one. Yet it is for another, less-known image - one in which he does not appear - that deserves particular respect.

It is a photograph of Dr Taye Woldesmiate (right), former president of the Ethiopian Teachers' Association, pale and gaunt in Addis Ababa central prison. Dr Taye had been arrested in 1996 for allegedly conspiring against the government, and was kept in wrist and ankle shackles 24 hours a day.

Mr Sinnott, then deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, visited the jail in 2000, where Dr Taye told him of the way he and fellow union members had been mistreated.

As the guard glanced away, Mr Sinnott pulled out a camera and snapped a picture of Dr Taye. Furious, the guard pointed his machine gun at Mr Sinnott and demanded the camera. Mr Sinnott watched as the guard ripped out the film. A little later, Mr Sinnott left the prison, smuggling out a second camera on which he had taken the photograph.

That image focused the world's attention on Dr Taye, designated a "prisoner of conscience" by Amnesty International. The Ethiopian government was deluged with thousands of letters, many from schools in Britain.

In 2002, Dr Taye was released. He now lives in exile in Illinois, in the United States. "I thought they would kill me in prison," Dr Taye said. "But Steve gave me light. The knowledge that someone out there was fighting for me helped me survive."

Mr Sinnott's path to the doors of Downing Street and overseas governments began in a working-class home in Liverpool, where he was born in 1951. His father worked at Ford's Halewood car plant; the young Steve went to West Derby comprehensive school.

His lifelong friend, Brian Sullivan, met him in form 3X and they hit it off at once - even though Mr Sullivan supported Liverpool football club and Mr Sinnott was a staunch Everton fan.

Mr Sullivan remembers one of their first ventures into teaching politics: "The guy who was supposedly teaching us O-level English language was going on the ale at lunchtime. Steve and I pulled him to one side and had a word, but he told us to get lost. So we went to the head of English and got it sorted. This was probably one of the first examples of Steve showing he would not be fobbed off with second best."

After Mr Sinnott graduated with a BA in social sciences from Middlesex Polytechnic in 1974, he trained as a teacher at Edge Hill College in Ormskirk. His politics softened: he gave up his Communist Party membership card and joined the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and Labour.

As a teacher - first at Shorefields comprehensive school in Toxteth, Liverpool, then Broughton High near Preston, in Lancashire - he encouraged and inspired pupils. Whenever he was asked what he taught, he would say: "Children."

One of those children, Paul Osbourne, 36, uses the economics he learned from Mr Sinnott when interviewing politicians for his Classic FM news shows. He said: "Kids being kids, we used to try to provoke him. 'Isn't Margaret Thatcher wonderful,' we'd say. But it didn't bother him; I think he thought it was hilarious."

Andrew Stuart, 32, of Preston, said Mr Sinnott gave him the confidence to stand in front of the class and sing. Now he has an audition for The X Factor. "He gave me the confidence to express myself, because he had confidence in me," says Mr Stuart. "Very few people in this world are as genuine as he was."

Mr Sinnott was elected to the NUT national executive in 1986, in the midst of the teacher pay strikes, and eight years later became the union's first comprehensive-educated president. That year he was elected deputy general secretary, and left his teaching post. He spent much of the next 10 years developing an understanding of teachers, and their challenges in Britain and abroad.

Like many senior members of the NUT, he found it hard to escape the union's factionalised infighting and was frequently sidelined. Before standing as general secretary in 2004, he made pleas for unity within the union and with its competitors. He won the post in a comfortable victory over a divided opposition of moderates and the hard left. Ian Murch, a left-winger who ran second to Mr Sinnott in the election, subsequently became union treasurer and worked closely with him. The two men had been on opposite sides of a "warring union", Mr Murch said, but Mr Sinnott had made it a personal mission to bring those factions together.

The extent to which he succeeded was remarkable, and this year's Easter conference was widely regarded as the most unified in the union's recent history.

Mr Sinnott found it harder to fix the NUT's strained relationship with the Government: it was the one school union which did not enter into the "social partnership" policy forum with officials and employers. However, his views on matters, including the commercialisation of childhood, appear to have influenced ministers, and there were signs that he was beginning to rebuild bridges.

Late last year he offered an olive branch to Gordon Brown, as the new Prime Minister, by withdrawing legal action against the Government for excluding the NUT from policy discussions on teachers' pay and workload. Colleagues said he developed a rapport with Mr Brown, who was enthused by his work with the Commonwealth to improve education in the developing world.

Dr Taye said: "Steve Sinnott would risk everything for education, for human rights, for people."

In his final weeks, colleagues said he was delighted by the growing support for the union's one-day strike over pay on April 24.

Mr Sinnott was a vegetarian, and enjoyed cycling as well as football. He leaves a son, daughter, and two grandchildren. Mr Murch said: "One of the last times I saw him was at King's Cross in London. He was coming out of the station with his grandson on his shoulders, and his face was beaming. He loved his family; he loved people."


- Born in Liverpool, June 24, 1951;

- Educated at West Derby Technical High in Liverpool; took a social sciences degree at Middlesex Polytechnic and a PGCE at Edge Hill College in Ormskirk, Lancashire;

- Married Mary Crossman in 1972; father of Stephen and Kate, grandfather to Robbie and Freddie;

- Taught humanities at Shorefields comprehensive in Toxteth, Liverpool, from 1975; then in 1979 moved to Broughton High near Preston, Lancashire, where he became head of economics and business studies;

- Joined the NUT as a student teacher in 1974; became a member of the national executive in 1986; in 1994 became the union's first national president to have attended a comprehensive school, and then was elected deputy general secretary; succeeded Doug McAvoy as general secretary in 2004;

- Died at home in Watford, Hertfordshire, on April 5, 2008, aged 56, with his wife, Mary, at his side.


"Governments have always found it tempting to play the game of divide and rule. Teachers and the education service are the poorer for this division."

Calling for union unity in a TES article, April 2003

"In my soul I am a teacher: I am proud of being a teacher and I will always be a teacher."

Campaigning to be NUT general secretary, March 2004

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

After winning the NUT election, 2004

"Sadly our schools are not immune to what is happening on our streets generally. They cannot close out at the school gates the ills besetting society."

December 2004

"I have seen the horrendous lengths that some have had to go in places such as Ethiopia and South Africa to get any sort of learning. "The target of getting 100 million children out of poverty by 2015 has to be achievable."

March 2005

"The idea that popular schools should expand, leaving unpopular schools to swing in the wind is profoundly wrong because it goes against the whole concept of equal access."

His first annual conference speech as general secretary, 2005

"We want to create a culture that what is right or cool is coming into school prepared to work."

April 2006

"We should halt commercial pressures on pupils, including banning TV advertising of unhealthy food. Individual tuition should be expanded for all pupils who need it."

Writing in The TES, December 2007

"When it comes to testing in England, the tail wags the dog. It is patently absurd that even the structure and content of education is shaped by the demands of the tests."

February 2008

"Steve Sinnott, general secretary, National Union of Teachers. I still love saying that. There's a certain ring to it. I think it's smashing."

March 2008


"Steve Sinnott was inspirational in his devotion to teaching, not just in Britain, but around the world."

Gordon Brown

"Teachers, parents and pupils have lost a doughty fighter."

Brendan Barber, TUC general secretary

"Steve led efforts to promote teacher trade unionism internationally; his efforts to promote understanding between Arab and Israeli teacher trade unionists were unremitting."

Mary Bousted, Association of Teachers and Lecturers general secretary

"We did not always see eye to eye on every issue. But we never had an angry word. And I never doubted for one moment Steve's commitment to the teaching profession and to ensuring all children get the best possible start in life."

Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

"Being the general secretary of a major trade union is always rewarding, often highly pressurised and sometimes very lonely. No one should ever underestimate the pressures of the job. Whatever the differences between our two unions, we have always been united in wanting to do the best for teachers."

Chris Keates, NASUWT general secretary

"Steve's leadership unified the union, overcoming divisions to turn our fire in the right direction. And when needed, Steve the careful diplomat could let fly in a way that made the enemies of education turn tail and run."

Bill Greenshields, NUT president


"From the first, I found him to be a kind, gracious and extremely funny man. I have enjoyed both his company and his wise, conciliatory approach to dealing with the many problems besetting the profession ... the trade union world will miss a fine upstanding and honourable person."


"Whenever I saw him in the news, I felt well represented and confident that we had an excellent leader."


"I may have voted against the strike and did not always agree with Steve Sinnott, but he appeared to me to be an honourable man of conviction, deserving the respect of all.


"Another sad loss to the profession - that rare thing, a principled union leader who never lost touch with the grass roots. He was an educator as well as a campaigner and skilled negotiator."


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