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Unions 2000 Thursday, 20 April, 2000, 16:14 GMT 17:14 UK
Call to modernise unions
Peter Smith using laptop
Peter Smith: Teaching unions should move with the times
Teachers' unions must modernise themselves, working closer together and using information technology to keep more in touch with their members, one of their own leaders says.

Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said that if the new General Teaching Council in England came to be seen as an authoritative voice for teachers there, they might turn away from unions altogether.

He revealed that the ATL had just signed a partnership agreement with the higher education union the Association of University Teachers, although there are no plans yet for a merger.

Mr Smith was speaking at the end of his union's annual gathering, in Belfast on Thursday.

He risked upsetting delegates by questioning how much they really represented the views of ordinary classroom teachers and lecturers.

Technology solution

"With the development of ICT (information and communication technology) we will in the future be better able to talk to hardworking teachers who never go to a branch meeting," he said.

He explained later that he thought this would allow unions' executives to speak with more authority for their ordinary members.

He saw a time when, in response to a request for the union's views on something, he might say: 'I'm not sure, but give us a week and we'll find out.'

A survey could then be conducted electronically, using e-mail for instance.

Union activists needed to be consulting teachers rather than relying on "secondhand anecdote and staffroom gossip."

'Coherence needed'

Mr Smith said teachers' unions needed to work together much more in presenting "the voice of the teaching profession".

"There are fundamental policy issues being decided. We either involve ourselves in these debates or we don't, and we end up in a loving clinch with a disappearing past," he said.

"Teachers and parents and the government are entitled to have a more coherent professional view from teachers than they get at the moment," he said.

"We increasingly make policy on the hoof in response to tabloid headlines," he said.

As an example of the way he sees things going, the ATL's partnership with the AUT will involve a joint committee meeting three times a year, primarily to agree policy.

People might say, why not just merge?

Alternative voice

"First of all let's flirt, then let's go steady, and if we like each other then let's go the next logical step," he said.

Although any talk of a merger was some way off, unions had to be aware that other voices for teachers as professionals were being created.

The new regulatory General Teaching Council, which is due to start work in September, could take a lead if it carried out its intention of conducting research.

"It could mean that anybody outside the profession who wanted to know what the 'state of the nation' is as far as education is concerned could go to the GTC," Mr Smith told journalists.

"If it comes to be seen by teachers as the authoritative, influential voice of the profession, the reason for their joining a union will inevitably be weakened."

Carol Adams, chief executive of the GTC, said in response that she hoped it would work closely with the unions.

"Certainly the GTC's role is to provide a coherent professional view and to be closely in touch with grassroots teachers.

"However, I do not see the GTC as subverting the trade union role in any way," she said.

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