Vol-au-vents for votes in NUT bid

19th March 2004 at 00:00
Candidates for the teachers' union leadership canvass the country. William Stewart reports

It's Wednesday, so it must be Exeter. Vol-au-vents, hotel function rooms, handshakes, school halls and sausages on sticks have dominated the National Union of Teachers' four leadership candidates' lives this term as they travel the country in search of nominations.

With an average of three or four hustings meetings a week, and as many as 40 in total, the campaign to succeed Doug McAvoy as general secretary is proving to be a gruelling one. Last week it was the turn of the NUT's Devon association to decide who to nominate.

Unlike some local branches, which have chosen to hear only from a candidate who already had their backing, Devon invited the entire field.

In front of them were assembled the 25 or so members who had turned up on behalf of the county's 3,000 NUT teachers. This apparently made the meeting, held in a hotel on the edge of an Exeter industrial estate, one of the best attended so far.

Ian Murch, executive member for West Yorkshire and a leading light of one of the union's main left-wing groups, began with an analysis of the NUT's strengths and weaknesses.

The union, he said, had lost its ability to campaign on major national education issues. It needed to encourage more young teachers to become activists. "I am not going to ask you your age but not many of you are very young," he said, surveying his predominantly grey-haired audience.

Martin Powell Davies, the Lewisham branch secretary and member of the Socialist Party, opted for a more rabble-rousing style.

Teachers were angry, he said, angry at bullying management and angry at unions that had let them down. On every crucial battle in the last decade, the NUT leadership had marched its members to the top of the hill and marched them back down again.

Playing his trump card, he said he was unlike the other candidates because he remained a practising teacher and would be back in the classroom tomorrow.

This was too much for Steve Sinnott, the deputy general secretary who has been largely sidelined by Mr McAvoy but has the backing of the centre-left majority on the executive.

He had started his career as an ordinary teacher and would finish it as one. "In my soul I am a teacher: I am proud of being a teacher and I will always be a teacher," he said.

Professional unity was Mr Sinnott's central message. A single teaching union would have prevented the Conservatives from introducing Sats, league tables and grant-maintained schools, he said.

John Bangs, the NUT's head of education, who has been placed in the media limelight by Mr McAvoy, who favours him as a successor, concentrated his fire on the Government. Its workforce reforms would reduce teacher numbers, he said, and, he predicted, privatisation would continue with charter schools.

Mr Bangs finished by declaring he was the only independent candidate, predicting that this would be where "Steve starts shouting at me". Mr Sinnott did not disappoint. "John is supported by a group, it just happens to be smaller than everyone else's," he retorted.

A vote taken at the end of the meeting showed a significant number from the left had decided they needed to select a "stop Sinnott" candidate.

John Bangs, supported by the county's national executive member, won the nomination, with Ian Murch coming second. Nominations close on May 3, and the ballot will run from June 7-28.

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