Obituary: Peter Smith

Teachers' leader whose energy made the ATL a major force

Peter Smith, who has died of cancer aged 65, rose effortlessly through the ranks of teaching and trade unionism to speak eloquently for education on the national stage. His message was always clear and consistent - education matters.

He was an intelligent and active campaigner for improving the life chances of children and the working lives of teachers and lecturers. He spoke for all teachers when he counselled professionalism in their actions, and warned successive governments that they must temper their interference and allow teachers to teach. In 1999, against a backdrop of professional unease with New Labour's obsession with performance management, he called for teachers to accept the need to measure pupils' progress, but warned the government to stay out of the classroom.

Smith was born in south London and educated at Haberdashers' Aske's boys school, south-east London, and at Brasenose College, Oxford. He met his wife Anne at university and married into an unusual political family: his father-in-law, Ernest Millington, who survives him, is the last living postwar Common Wealth party MP.

Smith began work as a trainee with the Midland Bank (now HSBC) in 1961. He had a passion for staging opera and would later say that a career in the theatre had been a distinct possibility. But a vocation for teaching soon evolved, and he taught at Sir Walter St John's endowed grammar school for boys in Battersea, and then at Trinity school, Croydon.

He joined the Assistant Masters Association (AMA) as assistant secretary in 1974, and in 1982 became deputy general-secretary. At the time the AMA represented male grammar and independent secondary school teachers, while the Association of Assistant Mistresses (AAM) represented their female colleagues. The unions merged in 1978 to form the Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association (AMMA), with Smith as joint general secretary, then general secretary.

Smith brought intellect and passion to the bruising world of trade unions. His leadership during the teacher strikes of the late 1970s and early 80s led to an explosive growth for the AMMA and it trebled in size. His consummate skill was to shape the unfashionable AMMA into a modern and inclusive home for the silent majority of the teaching profession who cared deeply about children's education. It was an understated revolution in the representation of the country's teachers. The AMMA became the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) in 1993. While news coverage focused on the strikes and strife in schools, thousands of classroom teachers voted with their feet and moved to the AMMA and then the ATL.

Smith's leadership was characterised by a commitment to meet the trade union needs of members, with a sound infrastructure, expert legal services, pension advice, insurance deals and long hours bargaining with employers. The ATL evolved to become a pressure group that advocated educational excellence for all through the skills and dedication of the teaching profession.

Smith supplemented his intellectual prowess by employing a coterie of education policy advisers who had direct political experience, leading the ATL down a path of constructive engagement with the political process. He understood the power of the media and rapidly gained a reputation for slick and devastating soundbites. He aimed to exert influence behind the scenes, to lobby government, MPs and civil servants rather than shout members' concerns. He had a close relationship with policymakers; and education ministers, civil servants and the educational establishment fell for his charm and persuasiveness.

Smith was as comfortable grinding through the endless Saturdays that he spent marshalling his 90-strong executive committee as he was exploding with invective in front of 600 delegates at the annual conference. The value of his contribution to the working life of the nation was recognised by government with his appointment to the Equal Opportunities Commission in 1994.

All this time the ATL remained outside the main family of the trade union movement, but in 1999 Smith led the union through a crucial vote to join the TUC. The ATL had come of age, taking its rightful place alongside the other two large classroom teacher unions, with Smith serving on the general council of the TUC from 2000 to 2002.

Poor health led him to retire early in 2002, leaving his union brimming with confidence and still putting the interests of children first. He received a CBE in 2003, and is survived by Anne and his children, Patrick and Vicki.

· Peter Smith, trade unionist, born June 25 1940; died February 10 2006

Richard Margrave

The GuardianTramp

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