Education International
Education International

Courage and determination

published 25 March 2014 updated 7 April 2014
written by:

Steve Sinnott was Deputy General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers England and Wales from 1994 to 2004, and was elected as its General Secretary in 2004. In the early morning of Saturday 5th April 2008, just a few weeks after rallying the NUT Conference with a speech full of hope, optimism and determination, Steve died – suddenly and devastatingly.

A few days later at his funeral, in the corner of the room, stood Steve’s long time friend Ethiopian teachers’ leader, Gemoraw Kassa. Steve had supported Gemoraw through very difficult times. On hearing of Steve’s death, Gemoraw just made his travel arrangements and came. Steve’s family willed him there, but there was no need to ask. He came out of deep respect for a man who, behind the headline of UK politics, had fought passionately for education and for justice for teachers around the world.

Gemoraw was a lonely and distraught figure that day, but he inspired the thought that the momentum Steve had achieved in the worldwide campaign to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals could not end there with his tragic, premature death. I spoke with NUT National Executive member, Jerry Glazier and with Steve’s successor Christine Blower and before 2008 ended, together with Steve’s wife Mary, we were well into the lengthy process of establishing the Steve Sinnott Foundation as a UK charity committed to the promotion of the MDGs.

Our aim from the outset was to be, and to do, something different around Steve’s own beliefs and values.  He believed in the courage and determination of well motivated young people. I remembered how Steve would return from trips to Africa or South Asia or the Middle East full of excitement about the teachers and young people he had met. He was delighted and dismayed by the youngsters who would ask him. “Mr. Steve, is it true that there are children in your country who don’t want to go to school.” Such was their enthusiasm for knowledge and learning that they simply could not understand the idea of truancy. That was what excited Steve, himself a teacher in every fibre of him. He spoke with huge admiration of teachers achieving the near impossible in circumstances for us in the UK are hard to imagine.

Steve also believed in community. His commitment as a trade unionist was a commitment to the most basic principle of trade unionism, the concept of “working together”, people putting aside selfish individualism to work together in a common cause with a common purpose. He adopted as his own election slogan “Working together, winning together”, and he didn’t need to think it out as a piece of electoral propaganda. It came naturally to him. He insisted on ending the NUT Conferences he led with the Canned Heat classic “Let’s Work Together” with its rallying lyric:

Every boy, girl, woman and man Oh well now, come on you people Walk hand in hand Let's make this world of ours A good place to stand

A thousand Conference delegates would at first shuffle with self conscious embarrassment until Steve’s irrepressible enthusiasm drove them into a rousing chorus.

With these values and Steve’s reputation, we could do something different. There are many international charities doing amazing work to support and advance the MDGs. Without something different, all we could would be to add donations made in Steve’s name to their great work. But we believed we could do more than that. We believed we could reach out to teachers, educators, students and pupils in the UK and around the world to raise awareness of what the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) mean and what they are for, and by doing so, to add to the momentum to achieve them.

Alongside the importance Steve placed on working together is respect, respect for the humanity of every other person. We refused to see what we proposed to do as patronising western charity. Though there may poverty of material wealth which denies children education, there is great value in culture, and tradition. The MDG objectives must be to deliver education as a means of escape from poverty, valuing and preserving the best of the culture of those who can find new liberties in knowledge and learning. For Steve and for us, the approach is summed up in the Global Campaign for Education’s UK coalition campaign title, Send My Friend to School. It is always about “friends”, other children and young people with their own songs, their own music, their own stories and their own history to share and fascinate. The Steve Sinnott Foundation is constituted, as it must be, as a charity in UK law, but education is never charity. It is a treasure to be shared amongst friends.

In May 2009, we launched the Steve Sinnott Foundation at the NUT offices in London. In October, we launched it at the offices of the National Education Association in Washington DC. On 1st December 2009 we completed the launch programme at an event in the UK Parliament buildings attended by leading UK politicians including the then UK Secretary of State for Education and his successor, the current Secretary of State.  Their attendance proved all that we had hoped for – that respect for Steve’s reputation would give us the credibility we need to make a difference. We opened an office in Watford. England on 1 January 2010 and got working.

We set up a worldwide online community at www.stevesinnottfoundation.org.uk to provide opportunities for small enthusiastic education project leaders to bring their work to the world’s attention and share their problems and ideas. The website now hosts information on over 350 such projects. The community has over 2300 members and the site has received over 200,000 visits.

We publish a magazine, ENGAGE, now in its eighth edition, with a wide range of  articles  related to the MDG issues to 2015 and beyond from children, teachers, project leaders, senior academics, leading politicians including former UK Prime Minister and now UN Special Education Envoy, Gordon Brown, and world renowned campaign leaders including Sir Bob Geldof.

We’re directly supporting a school building project in Nepal and a teacher development programme in Sierra Leone. We’re trying to raise direct support for a library project in Tanzania, and we’re operating a growing school partnerships programme.

We have of course, for obvious reasons, a close relationship with the National Union of Teachers in England and Wales and we owe a great deal to the national union and to its local associations and divisions for all the support they have given us including the much needed material support which allows us to operate and grow. We are however an independent organisation with our own decision making processes. We have strong and much valued support from the Ulster Teachers Association and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in the UK, and we are building our links with other teachers’ organisations in the UK and elsewhere and with Education International.

To make the impact we want to make we need to grow both in size and influence. In December this year we were joined by our second employee, fundraising co-ordinator, Nick Evans.  Nick is already in at the deep end working to win support to develop our work across a broad spectrum of potential supporters and sponsors.

And so to our most adventurous programme so far. In June 2013 we ran a pilot Education for All Day in over 50 UK schools involving    teachers and reaching    pupils. EfA Day is one day set aside towards the end of the school year for curriculum and other school activities to be focused on the achievement of universal quality education. We provide for the day teaching materials prepared by our team of education consultants and encourage the participating schools to link with each other, to join our international school partnerships programme and to use the EfA Day as platform for ongoing activities in each school.

Supported by the UK company, Teachers Assurance and its linked charity the Teachers Group Educational Trust, EfA Day 2013 was a great success, summed up by one primary school head teacher who thanked us for helping to make her young pupils ‘citizens of the world’. It has been followed by two conferences organised by EfA Day participant students and by our own participating schools conference in London. We are now preparing for a larger event in June 2014 and looking forward to a UK national event in 2015. We have also been contacted by the head of the Global Campaign for Education in the US with a proposal to organise EfA Day USA.

Readers of this article who are interesting in supporting, sponsoring or participating in EfA Days or in helping us to develop other activities, please contact our Projects Manager Jasmine Jones at [email protected]

When in 2007 Steve gave the prestigious Hugh Gaitskell lecture at Nottingham University, he spoke of ‘the liberating power of education’. Elsewhere he would often refer to education as ‘the great liberator’.  This is the reward offered to us all by joining the effort to achieve the Millennium Development Goals for education – working together and winning together.