Unions strike both discord and harmony

8th April 2005 at 01:00
The union conference season got off to a cocky start with Mary Bousted, Association of Teachers and Lecturers' general secretary, hen-pecking David Hart and his merry men in the National Association of Head Teachers, for walking out on the national agreement and denying women primary teachers their rights. Rebutting Mary's feminist findings of sexism, David protested that women heads were equally responsible for the NAHT's recalcitrance.

I liked the line taken by Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, on the same issue.

"Where were the usual clarion calls to sort out this un-balloted industrial action? Was there one law for management but another for the managed?" she asked.

I had visions of the NAHT council refusing to disown the wildcat action and David Hart, doing an Arthur Scargill, and being dispatched abroad with an extra suitcase or two to protect the headteachers' cash from sequestration.

So Easter week ended with the NASUWT and ATL threatening lawful industrial action where the agreement was not implemented. The National Union of Teachers would be taking lawful, and the NAHT unlawful action, against the same agreement.

But there were issues commanding general consensus, if condemnation. The "old-timers" of the Office for Standards in Education and league tables were joined by newcomers in the unpopularity stakes - academies.

Ministers have had a chequered record at conferences this season. Ruth Kelly may have been jeered by the Secondary Heads Association and condemned (without a hearing) by the NUT president for failing to pass her threshold, but Stephen Twigg performed well and was warmly applauded by the NASUWT.

Chris Keates cleverly adapted my concluding remarks to Gillian Shephard just before the 1997 election, expressing the hope that he would not return as a shadow of his former self!

All the conferences were (quite rightly) up in arms about the threat to raise the normal retirement age. It took me back to November 12, 1973. The National Association of Schoolmasters called a half-day strike and lobby of Parliament to get the recently increased pension contribution put back down to 6 per cent of salary. We won. The education secretary of the day, Margaret Thatcher, made the concession.

Having devoted much of my forthcoming book to tracing the history of NASUWT's "lonely battle against anti-social behaviour in schools", I could only watch with satisfaction as previous critics came on board, joined by Tony Blair and Michael Howard, battling for the crown of chief defender of good discipline in schools and scourge of anti-social behaviour in our communities.

Nigel de Gruchy was general secretary of the NASUWT from 1990-2002 and president of the TUC from 2002-03

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