MEMBERS of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers heading to their first-ever Belfast conference could have been forgiven a misplaced mood of optimism.
The choice of venue was meant as a vote of confidence in the Northern Ireland peace process. The reality is deadlock and crisis talks instigated this week by the Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The annual assembly of the ATL itself was overshadowed by the deaths of teacher Pamela Relf and of two pupils.
With awful coincidence the city's newspapers were reporting the death of 14-year-old Denise Baillie as the ATL issued a survey, showing that more than one-third of
secondary pupils have been bullied in the past year, with one in seven physically attacked.
Denise took an overdose after a month of being victimised. Her school, Belfast Model school for girls, has a highly-praised anti-bullying policy. And a Leeds inquest found that 12-year-old Daniel Oldfield hanged himself after a school report said he had the attention span of a goldfish.
Concern about teacher stress dominated the opening sessions of the conference, with an emergency motion deploring the conduct of the Office for Standards in Education over Ms Relf's suicide and another condemning "the unnecessary increase in monitoring of the classroom teacher".
Michael Boakes, of St Richard's RC school in Bexhill, Sussex, said: "Monitoringis a growing curse, a burden on the classroom teacher."
Children were under pressure too, delegates said. They condemned "the factory farming" of pupils who suffered from initiatives such as booster classes.
The Government's pay reforms attracted less protest than ministers can expect at the other union conferences in Harrogate and Llandudno in the coming week. ATL general secretary Peter Smith's supportive line on performance pay was backed by a large majority at the conference.
But there was some dissent from the leaders' line. Julia Welford of East Sussex said: "This conference has just deplored the stress teachers are under yet we are agreeing to go through more stress, more work and more administration. For what? For possibly pound;2,000."
The union's moderate line was rewarded with praise from Estelle Morris, schools minister. "Thank you for what you have done ... I think together we have made huge improvements."
She also brought Easter gifts: new money for professional development and pound;60 million for new science laboratories. Teachers in nine pilot authorities - Southwark, Croydon, Northumberland, Rotherham, Sunderland, East Riding, City of Leicester, Woking and Herefordshire - will also get pound;500 bursaries, those in Education Action Zones and Excellence in Cities areas, pound;700. Ms Morris's third offering is pound;70m to fund performance bonuses for heads, deputies and advance skilled teachers.