This year there is an extra frisson of discord. Relations between the National Union of Teachers (NUT), meeting in Scarborough, and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), meeting in Blackpool, have descended into open warfare.
Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the NUT, accused his NASUWT counterpart, Nigel de Gruchy, of 'cuddling up' to ministers after his union decided to end its testing boycott.
Mr de Gruchy responded by saying the NUT had stumbled 'from farce to fiasco' in a series of calls for industrial action.
This trans-Pennine slanging match highlights the differences between the two unions. While the NASUWT confines itself purely to issues affecting teachers' conditions of service, the NUT has a much wider remit. It also has many more neo-Trotskyists, whose main aim is to upset its moderate leadership.
As well as holding debates on anti-racism and disarmament, the NUT conference has agonised over its policy of reserving seats on its executive for black members - one of last year's left-wing victories. There were unsuccessful calls for conference to be suspended so members could give support to Jane Brown, the Hackney headteacher alleged to have refused to take her pupils to Romeo and Juliet because it was 'overtly heterosexual'.
While most NUT members seem to work quite happily with their NASUWT counterparts in schools, their conference styles are quite different. At the NUT, zebra-patterned leggings, sloppy jumpers and crumpled sweatshirts are the order of the day. Delegates entering the conference centre must run the gauntlet of dozens of leafleters, Socialist Worker vendors and assorted campaigners with buckets. Once inside, their debates are punctuated by heckles, points of order and a great deal of banter.
Men in suits, though present at the NUT, are in the minority. At the NASUWT, ties and tweed jackets abound. An air of harmony usually pervades, though debates can be lively. The image tends to be male despite its 1975 merger with the Union of Women Teachers, an association for female career teachers who wanted to dispel the idea that women went into the profession for reasons of domestic convenience.
The NASUWT, which has most of its members in secondary schools, is about pragmatism rather than educational principle. No one will catch Nigel de Gruchy justifying a test boycott on the grounds that the tests are 'educationally flawed' - as Doug McAvoy does. The union is in business, Mr de Gruchy emphasises, to improve the pay and conditions of its members. It has taken its stand on the inconvenience and burdens that the national curriculum and testing impose on teachers.
Last year, it led the test boycott and was challenged by Wandsworth council in the High Court, which ruled that the boycott was legal. This year, it has defied the view of the NUT and many other teachers by suggesting that national curriculum assessments in class should be dropped - due to the workload - and pupils judged solely on their test results.
The union appeals to pragmatists and has fewer attractions for left-wing activists than the NUT. Its members tend to be less interested in political theory than in improving their salaries.
The NUT points to its rival's politically unsound roots with some glee, but perhaps Mr McAvoy views its proceedings a little ruefully. 'There is nothing stage-managed about the NUT conference,' he said yesterday. He paused for a split second before adding: 'Sadly.'
Leading article, page 15Reuse content