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A tribute to Doug McAvoy: ‘one of education’s greats’

John Bangs and Arthur Jarman pay tribute to their former colleague and friend who was fiercely loyal to the education union – and its teachers

Doug McAvoy, McAvoy, National Union of Teachers, NUT

Doug McAvoy’s death comes as a great shock. During his 15-year tenure as general secretary of the NUT teaching union, he seemed to dominate the educational landscape. He was the authentic voice of the teaching profession when education politics were at their most turbulent. He was the NUT’s first elected general secretary when he took office in 1989 and was twice re-elected.

Doug was secretary and president of the Newcastle Upon Tyne Teachers’ Association before his election to the national executive in 1970. He was appointed as deputy general secretary in 1984 and was the architect and driving force behind a radical restructuring and expansion of the union’s regional and Wales services to members.

While DGS, he took over over the Burnham salary negotiations temporarily from Fred Jarvis, who’d had a road accident. This was at a time when the fortunes of organised teacher unionism were at a low ebb. Kenneth Baker had imposed the Education Reform Act. Then, as a result of long drawn out action by teachers’ organisations trying to restore their pay gains of the early seventies, he had removed their negotiating rights. By 1989, the NUT’s membership was haemorrhaging.

In post, Doug acted swiftly to make sure that the union’s officials could negotiate directly with schools to protect members at a time when local management of schools had triggered the long sad decline of local education authorities.

In 1991, the Conservative government started to introduce its national curriculum tests. They were hugely unpopular with teachers and with many parents. The phrases "teaching to the test" and "excessive workload" became common currency in the profession and in 1993, with the NASUWT teaching union, Doug led the NUT’s boycott of the tests. It was immensely popular with teachers. Ex-members started flooding back to the union. Gillian Shepherd, then education secretary – with whom Doug got on well despite their differences – conceded a review of the tests. While it didn’t get rid of them it, the review at least removed the spectre of test result league tables for seven- and 14-year-olds.

Doug had great hopes for the 1997 New Labour government. He was responsible for the union’s five pledges, two of which were to achieve a limit of 30 for all primary class sizes and a crash school rebuilding programme. These were successful but, despite Doug’s rapport with education secretary David Blunkett, the government’s policy of using Ofsted to name and shame schools soon led to the relationship souring.

Prior to the 2001 general election, schools faced a teacher shortage crisis. Blunkett agreed a review of teacher workload, which then turned into a programme of school workforce reform under the new education secretary, NUT member Estelle Morris. She was popular with the profession but, to Doug’s distress, she felt unable to continue. He believed that she had been inadequately supported by her officials. He got on less well with her successor Charles Clarke, who instituted a freeze of relations with the NUT when Doug refused to sign up to the School Workforce Agreement believing that it failed to protect the role of qualified teachers.

Despite the government’s standoff with the NUT, Doug led a massive expansion in the union’s professional role. In 2002, he gained the NUT executive’s agreement to fund a major programme of high quality professional development provided for its members by the Union. This was a first for any teachers’ organisation. The NUT was consequently a major beneficiary of the government’s new Union Learning Fund. Despite its lack of dialogue with the NUT, the government acknowledged the high quality of the union’s CPD. Many of the thousands of teachers who took part said that the NUT’s professional development had persuaded them to stay in teaching.

One of Doug’s lesser known achievements was his international work. Prior to 1993, there were two global federations of teachers’ unions, the World Federation of Organisations of the Teaching Profession and the International Federation of Free Teacher Unions. With American and Swedish teacher union leaders and the two Federations’ general secretaries, Fred Van Leeuwen and Bob Harris, he played a central role in the creation of a unified organisation, Education International. Twenty-six years on, it is the world’s biggest global union federation, representing over 30 million teachers. He was a true internationalist, also playing a tremendously influential role as president of The European Trade Union Committee for Education.

Fiercely loyal 

Doug was fiercely loyal to the NUT. He prized above all else the values of trust, honesty and loyalty. His commitment to his union meant that he could make enemies as well as friends. However, he was both loyal to and cared about the staff he managed. He went out of his way to support staff who faced health difficulties.

Doug McAvoy’s expectations were challenging. Yet his demand for loyalty was always returned in spades. He had a prodigious memory, great intellect and was a formidable strategist. He was both unpredictable and agile in his decision making. He enjoyed a pint. At the rostrum he was at his best when he put aside his prepared speeches and, delivered, impromptu, his case with irresistible logic and inspired argument. His driving force was promoting the best interests of NUT members.

On his retirement from the NUT in 2004, Doug handed over a healthy union to his successor, Steve Sinnott.

As an old colleague from an Irish Union said about Doug, his passing is very sad news. He was one of the great public education union leaders of the 20th century. He gave extraordinary leadership to the NUT as well as to international teacher unionism and made a significant contribution to their success today. He was also a good friend and mentor to many of us.

Doug is succeeded by his wife Elaine, Neil and Jennifer and, from his first marriage, by Margaret and Robert.

John Bangs is a former head of education and Arthur Jarman is a former head of communications at the NUT.

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