School security would have topped the agenda even if the past six months had not seen both the Dunblane tragedy and the death of Philip Lawrence, the headteacher stabbed outside his London school.
The assembly heard a catalogue of incidents from delegates. Hilary Pollard, a branch officer from Kirklees, told of a primary school teacher who eventually suffered a nervous breakdown after accusations by pupils and intimidation by their parents. She said another of her members, a slightly-built French teacher, was picked up and carried around the classroom. She was not believed by her head and later had to endure taunts of "Froggie" from pupils.
Delegates were also told that teachers' lives had been ruined by malicious allegations of abuse made by pupils. The union said heads often broke the Government's guidelines by automatically suspending accused staff.
Peter Smith, the general secretary of the union, which does not open its membership to headteachers, said school management and the police were not doing enough to combat the escalation in classroom violence. In a survey of ATL branch secretaries in 71 local education authorities, nine out of 10 teachers reported an increase in violence and indiscipline. Poor school management was cited as a key factor as well as poor behaviour by adult role models.
Janice Johnson, a member of the union's working party on stress said a woman teacher who complained of being shouted at by a 14-year-old boy who towered above her, was told that his father treated female members of staff in the same way.
The conference passed a motion calling for school safety commissions of teachers, governors, parents and police to be set up to tackle discipline problems. Peter Smith said the concerns were not just "a case of teachers whingeing by the seaside in an orgy of urging". Launching his union's campaign under the slogan "Nobody learns with violence, everyone loses", he said he had had informal contact with the Department for Education and Employment and the Home Office on the idea.
He said he was concerned that Labour education and employment spokesman David Blunkett's idea to introduce a football-style yellow cardred card policy in schools (see story, left) may not be appropriate nationwide. He said: "We need to find specific strategies for specific community situations."
Teachers at the conference said they wanted to see more schools equipped with closed-circuit television, personal alarms and panic buttons in the classroom. A motion which called for the DFEE to make it a legal requirement for schools to take appropriate security measures was passed unanimously.
Delegates also complained of classroom teachers being victims of bullying by school management. Glynne Rowlands, a Hertfordshire delegate, said that while schools had policies on bullying among pupils they often needed them for staff who bullied colleagues. The union's executive was requested to provide legal advice to members on what they can legally refuse to do.
However Russell Clarke, assistant secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said his members were often in the front line facing violence by parents in schools. "Heads come from a cross-section of society. There are unpleasant heads as there are unpleasant classroom teachers. What is needed is an effective grievance procedure agreed with governors."
He was countered by ATL delegate Stuart Herdson, of Salt grammar school, Shipley, who said governors often take the side of the head. He said an independent authority should be set up to hear appeals of disciplinary proceedings against staff.
* The ATL voted by three to one to consider affiliating to the Trades Union Congress. Opponents of the motion said members would leave in droves and accused the executive of forcing it through.