Former General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers

Born: January 2, 1939;

Died: May 12, 2019

Doug McAvoy, who has died aged 80, was General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) for 15 years from 1989. They were amongst the most dramatic and contentious years of the teaching profession but McAvoy was a canny operator despite some harrowing setbacks. He was renowned for his forthright opinions, and his robust attitude often divided opinion within the NUT. He was perceived as being on the Left but on becoming General Secretary he denounced the union’s hard left and warned that the union was in danger of becoming controlled by the militant tendency.

He set out to encourage moderate teachers back into the profession and to involve parents in their local schools. After many fractious years he saw the NUT membership rise from 183,000 to over 250,000.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, an amalgamation of the NUT and ATL unions, last week described McAvoy’s contribution to education and the working lives of teachers as “immense. He ... increased both the influence and the membership of the union.”

Douglas McAvoy attended Jarrow Grammar School then qualified as a teacher at Culham College in Oxford. After qualifying he returned to his beloved Newcastle and taught Maths and PE at a secondary modern in the city. Gradually he became involved in politics and worked his way up the ladder of the NUT. His career in teaching had prospered and he was appointed a lecturer at Newcastle College of Arts and Technology.

In 1974 he became full-time deputy general secretary of the union under Fred Jarvis. A decade later, when Jarvis was recovering from a broken leg, McAvoy led the union into a controversial series of three-day-a-week strikes over pay. The strikes brought widespread condemnation from within the profession and other unions. The NUT gave him a rough ride in 1990 when he told conference that under his leadership the union would strike only as a last resort.

The internal unrest in the union did not help the NUT’s bargaining power and as the Thatcher government pushed through a far-reaching programme McAvoy realised he had to take a more pragmatic to education politics. After Thatcher’s victory in the 1987 election he realised he had to engage in constructive dialogue with the government. “To try and pretend it hasn’t happened would be absolutely futile for the NUT and for the teaching profession,” he said.

But it was never easy for him. He advised co-operating with the Government on the national curriculum but there were constant challenges from the Left in the union. He was forever identified as ‘Old’ Labour and had an uneasy relationship with the Blair government. That worsened when Blair sent his son to the London Oratory, a prestigious Catholic state school: McAvoy was appalled.

McAvoy was the driving force behind a radical restructuring and expansion of the NUT. His last conference speech in 2004 was one of high emotion. He savagely criticised the Labour government, then the Left in his own Union, then, in a tear-jerking conclusion McAvoy warmly praised all his colleagues. He got a standing ovation.

McAvoy’s first marriage was dissolved and he married, in 1995, Elaine Derbyshire, who survives him with his three children.

Alasdair Steven