When Virginia Smith qualified as a teacher, she joined a union because it was the fashion. She never dreamed she would actually need it. Within her first year of teaching, illness forced her to take long periods of sick leave and meant the school had to fill in with supply teachers. Not long after her teaching debut, the independent primary where she worked demanded more than Pounds 1,000 towards the cost of the supply teacher.
"I had been off three times and the headteacher was very annoyed," she says. "But I felt this was totally unfair and turned to the union to find out about my rights." The union was the Professional Association of Teachers. She went to see one of its advisers who explained the legal situation to her. Then there was a meeting between her legal adviser, a medical representative, the school's headteacher and solicitor which culminated in an agreement that Ms Smith would not have to fork out any money for the supply teacher's wages.
Not long after this, Ms Smith started to teach the school's younger pupils and the headteacher decided that her class didn't have enough children in it to make it financially viable. She received a warning that she was to be made redundant and the class was to be abandoned. She immediately turned to her union.
"The PAT officer came to see me and by talking through the situation with me, took a tremendous weight off my shoulders," she says. "When you are in a school situation and there's tension between you and the headteacher, it is not easy."
Ms Smith was made redundant, but she says the terms were far more favourable than they would have been without the union's support. The class was saved and she was invited back to teach the pupils part-time.
Richard Fraser of PAT says: "The union can guide you through the situation and the membership fees are far from what you would have to pay in legal fees. With large class sizes, the number of changes taking place within the education system these days and the growing pressures that teachers are under, you need to belong to a union more than ever."
It is not only experienced teachers who run into difficulties. Newly qualified teachers can face problems with discipline and salary very early on, warn unions. The NASUWT tells of a young girl last year, who had just finished her PGCE course when she started a job in a nearby secondary school in the Midlands. Within days of her debut, the university told the school she had failed her PGCE on one aspect of the course. She faced losing her job. At this point her union representative stepped in. He negotiated with the school, the university and the LEA to give the young teacher time and support to retake the subject in her first term.
Her salary dropped to unqualified status but the union's efforts allowed her to continue in her job. Says Barry Gandy, assistant secretary of the NASUWT: "Union mem- bership is a form of insurance policy. It can provide you with the legal service that you may not be able to provide for yourself."
He believes the age has dawned when teachers need the security of a union. "In the past, if a child came home and told his dad that his teacher had given him a clip round the ear, then his father would give him another one for having misbehaved. These days if a child is smacked at school the parent's first thought is: 'How many thousand pound damages can I claim?' " Anne Heath joined the National Union of Teachers while she was still at college. For the first 19 years of her membership she had no need for help. But when she began to teach a class of 44 children, she began to get ill. Constant raising of her voice meant she consistently found herself losing it and finally she was diagnosed as having nodules on her vocal chords.
After four operations she had no choice but to give up teaching. Her union fought a long legal battle, first to allow her to claim reduced earnings allowance of Pounds 39 a week and then disability benefit. She has not had to pay out any legal fees during the ten-year battle.
Arthur Jarman, the NUT's assistant secretary for membership and communication, says: "So many things can occur during a teaching career and teachers need a recourse to help and guidance and a body that will take action on their behalf. It is also essential that teachers should have a voice and a say in what they want to see happen in education and the union has a way of expressing that. "
In the past few months, the unions have had a high profile. Both at Manton junior school in Worksop and at the Ridings School in Halifax the NASUWT succeeded in its campaign to ensure that disruptive pupils were suspended or withdrawn from school by threatening strike action.
The mother of Sarah Taylor, the alleged assailant of a male teacher, agreed to withdraw her daughter from the Ridings after the NASUWT threatened that its members at the school would strike and Matthew Wilson, who teachers claimed was guilty of "12 months of chronic bad behaviour", was suspended after the union stepped in.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers believes teaching is becoming increasingly challenging for new entrants and having the support and advice of a union is crucial. The union operates two 24-hour helplines which deal with teachers' stress and legal problems. It has also set up an Internet site which allows teachers to join up via computer.
Union spokesman Richard Margrave tells of a male teacher who was abused by a father and son. The teacher was attached by the parent in the staffroom and corridor of his school and hit by the pupil. The union succeeded in winning Pounds 100,000 in damages for the teacher, while the father received a suspended sentence. Says Margrave: "Teaching and lecturing has never been a more complex profession than it is today. There are constant curriculum changes, financial pressures causing redundancies, complex changes to retirement proposals, disruptive pupils and all the resulting stress. Teachers need comprehensive, up-to-date advice, benefits and support in their new career and that is what membership of a union offers."
Most of the unions offer a similar deal to NQTs: no charge for the initial few months followed by a reduced fee for the first two years. Unions deny claims that it is possible to avoid paying membership until they need help and then join and get union support on the spot. They say that any problems which have arisen before the teachers join the union will be excluded from legal assistance. Once you have decided to join a union the next question is which one? In addition to giving you support and advice, they all offer a wide range of financial services such as home and car insurance, mortgages and credit cards. Subscriptions paid by direct debit are usually cheaper.
* The Association of Teachers and Lecturers: 0171 930 6441 * Educational Institute of Scotland: 0131 225 6244 * National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers: 0121 453 6150 * National Union of Teachers: 0171 388 6191 * Professional Association of Teachers: 01332 372337