Union leader faces action on zone bid

17th April 1998 at 01:00
Frances Rafferty reports on the conflict between the ATL's Peter Smith and his members over talks with a consortium standfirst.

A teachers' trade union leader who is negotiating to run an education action zone could face a vote of no confidence from his executive.

Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, announced this week that his union was in exploratory talks with bankers, the Commission for Racial Equality, the Nuffield Foundation and the examination board Edexcel to form a consortium to raise standards in areas of social deprivation.

His members are angry because the plans were not discussed at the union's annual assembly last week. The announcement was made after the "secret bid" was revealed by The Guardian. Mr Smith said the talks were still tentative and informal, and had the discussion come to something more substantial he would have sought the support of his executive.

Hilary Pollard, an executive member, said she was very unhappy about the report and will be discussing with her colleagues appropriate action. She said: "I am not at all happy that the general secretary has been making deals in the name of the union behind our backs. Although the assembly did not reject the action zones outright, it made it clear it did not welcome them and the union remains very suspicious of them." She described herself as "gobsmacked" by the news.

Mr Smith has talked to the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank about funding the bid. He said any commercial involvement would be on a non-profit basis. His union would ensure there would be no erosion of teachers' pay and conditions within the zone.

He said: "The ATL believes it important to talk not just to Government but to the many leading educational, social and commercial bodies which may be interested in joining bids for future education action zones.

"As many trade unions in Europe, the United States and increasingly in the UK have discovered, close co-operation and partnership can have far more influence on policy formulation and act to guarantee the working conditions of the members far more effectively than outright confrontation."

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "If I did what Peter Smith has done, I would quite rightly have been sacked on the spot.

"It is deplorable for the ATL to be conniving in the scheme, which could lead to the undermining of national pay and conditions."

The National Union of Teachers this week backed its leadership's motion to try to influence bids to safeguard their members' conditions and threatened strike action where teachers' employment conditions are threatened.

Support came from Graham Lame the education chairman of the Local Government Association call the deal imaginative and said it could mean teachers playing a more significant role in setting up zones - including a veto on the potentially poorer pay and conditions.

"I can't imagine Peter Smith giving money out if it's going to mean varying pay and conditions," he said. "I think he's doing something imaginative."

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