Unlucky in biography

7th January 2005 at 00:00
Anti-teachers' union tales in Stephen Pollard's Blunkett biography do not ring true, writes Nigel de Gruchy.

I felt sorry for David Blunkett over his personal trauma. But I was angered and surprised when I read, in The TES (December 17, 2004), that the former education secretary had declared his "contempt" for the two biggest teachers' unions, including my own, only having "time for the more moderate Association of Teachers and Lecturers".

The source of this story was Stephen Pollard's so-called "biography" of David Blunkett. It naturally covers the subject's time in charge at the Department for Education and Employment and his relations with the unions during my time as general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers.

Reading the TES report, I could not reconcile David's oft-proclaimed reputation for "integrity and openness" with this apparent contempt. As education secretary, he always told me he respected, even enjoyed, the NASUWT's straight-talking. Our exchanges were sometimes vigorous but never did David's demeanour display the slightest hint of "contempt".

Checking the source itself I was staggered to read in the pcreface: "The book is not authorised. Blunkett has not read or heard a word of the text prior to publication and will doubtless disagree with much of it. But he has ... given me hours of candid interviews."

I use the term "biography" advisedly, for Pollard's text often constitutes a confusing mixture of his own comments and those of David Blunkett and others. Moreover, Pollard's text contains serious factual errors. He rails against the establishment of the General Teaching Council, wrongly claiming that membership was to be voluntary.

Incomprehensibly, Pollard claims a teachers' council was needed to supplant the unions. He claims: "Blunkett regarded... the National Union of Teachers and NASUWT with contempt, not least because they opposed all change for no other reason than for the sake of it." It is difficult to believe someone of the stature of David Blunkett would ever lend his name to such sloppy comment and risible disregard of fact.

David acknowledged the "very constructive" response of the NASUWT to the 1998 Green Paper proposals on performance pay, making them workable and generally acceptable. He also knew our "opposition" was often not to the policies of New Labour in principle but to the excessive workload they carried for teachers.

While applauding the ATL's moderation, Pollard condemns what he portrays as the disgraceful treatment of a blind man, denying Blunkett (then shadow education secretary) any applause after his address to its 1995 conference.

The problem, according to Pollard, was that Blunkett had called for incompetent teachers to be sacked. Apparently general secretary Peter Smith's response was "withering" as "all hell was let loose" amid the moderation. Like some commentators fighting to prevent facts from colouring prejudice, Pollard would have the world believe unions defend incompetence.

Yet only recently, researching my books on the history of the NASUWT, I came across a letter from David Blunkett's minister of state, Stephen Byers, thanking us for agreeing new national capability and disciplinary procedures with the employers at his request.

After recording the ATL's "moderate" outburst, Pollard moves on to events at the NUT conference a few days later, when some SWP teachers jostled Blunkett, causing him to take shelter in an ante-room. The incident enabled him to gain fortuitous media propaganda that he was "taking on the unions" and reducing us to "spluttering impotent rage".

Pollard then, through a footnote, makes an extraordinary allegation: "So great was the rivalry between the NASUWT and the NUT," he writes, that I "arranged for a standing ovation when Blunkett spoke at (my) union's conference the following Thursday, simply to be different."

That is absolute trash. Of course, there was press anticipation of the different treatment Blunkett would receive. The NASUWT was famous for its lively but well-behaved conferences. If one person were responsible for this response, it was Blunkett's fellow Sheffield native and NASUWT past president, Dave Battye, who, first to his feet, converted the undoubtedly warm but sedentary applause into a standing ovation.

As a skilled politician, Blunkett had pressed all the right buttons, expressing much sympathy for teachers' problems, most notably anti-social behaviour in schools. David publicly acknowledged on leaving Education to become home secretary after Labour's 2001 election victory that his "greatest regret was not being able to do more to restore teacher morale".

That seems more like agreement than "contempt" to me. Pollard projects his obvious anti-union prejudice through the subject of his biography by a none-too-subtle juxtaposition of his own views and those he ascribes to Blunkett.

If, during all this time, David Blunkett held the NASUWT in contempt, he was astonishingly two-faced. I cannot believe he was so lacking in integrity. It seems he has been as unlucky in biography as he has in love.

Nigel de Gruchy was NASUWT general secretary between 1990 and 2002

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