Leading Article: A quartet of unions that do the teachers a great disservice

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EACH EASTER we are greeted by daffodils, Easter eggs and a week of teachers' unions conferences. "The conferences have not always been the best advertisement for the profession," David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, has drily observed. And this year looks as if it will be as bad as ever.

Yesterday the season was kicked off by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL). Immediately, the tone is set by the battle against performance- related pay rather than such issues as raising standards in the classroom or improving the status and authority of teachers. Is it any wonder that despite - or indeed perhaps because of - regular bouts of union militancy, teachers have lost the support of so many parents and continue to fall behind other professionals in pay rates?

Unlike doctors or lawyers, teachers have never had a professional association. Instead, they are represented by four competing unions, of which the National Union of Teachers (NUT) is the worst. Its London-based male firebrands still regard the classroom as a factory for social engineering in ways that were unfashionable even in the Seventies. Doug McAvoy keeps the militants mostly in check (although even he could not stop delegates from jostling Mr Blunkett and his guide dog at their conference two years ago). But the NUT has set its face against performance-related pay on principle.

The National Association of School Masters Union of Women Teachers regards itself as the more professional face of teaching, representing as it does secondary school teachers. Nonetheless, Nigel de Gruchy's outfit has shown itself willing to take on the Government over conditions and pay. Although a strike ballot is scheduled, Mr de Gruchy is prepared to come to a compromise over performance-related pay. For those teachers who find de Gruchy still too radical there is the ATL, as well as the Professional Association of Teachers which refuses to go on strike.

But these competing voices do not improve the well-being of those in the classroom. There are signs that this is starting to be seen. The unions have welcomed the Government's idea for a General Teaching Council, which would be set up on the lines of the General Medical Council, maintaining best practice and policing the profession.

Teachers, many of whom work long hours in difficult circumstances and for comparatively little reward, deserve better from their professional representatives. They need one professional association that can speak to the Government with the authority of unity, and which can address the public with the likelihood of getting sympathy for its cause. This is the most pressing battle that should be fought this week. Sadly, however, it is one that is likely to be ignored once again.