The Professional Association of Teachers is likely to merge with the much smaller Professional Association of Nursery Nurses, immediately increasing membership by 10 per cent to around 44,000. Balloting of nursery nurses begins on April 3, but the union - which currently shares a building and a no-strike policy with the PAT - believes reaction from members is generally favourable.
There are major advantages for both sides. The PAT is manoeuvring to expand its primary and early-years base at a time when the Government's "cast-iron commitment" to provide a nursery education for four-year-olds should mean expanding numbers of teachers and child-care professionals.
The 4,000-member PANN, meanwhile, is so small that there would be major financial and organisational advantages in becoming part of a larger union. The plan is that it would remain a separate section within a merged union.
John Andrews, general secretary of the PAT, said: "It's a question of developing our niche market." The merger would make organisation in nurseries, playgroups and primary schools easier as teachers and child-care professionals would have similar interests, he said. The union - whose membership is strongest among primary teachers - has already had enquiries from specialist teacher assistants, the first batch of whom will graduate later this year.
The union is already planning a joint primary and early-years group to co-ordinate strategies on "common professional matters and representation". This is seen as vital at a time when nursery education is changing radically. Mr Andrews hopes that a new professional officer for the union's education team, specialising in primary, early years and child care, will be appointed before the end of the year.
Trisha Pritchard, assistant general secretary of PANN, said the feedback from members to the idea of a merger - officially known as a transfer of engagements - had been very positive. There had been concern about nursery nurses being replaced by untrained mothers as budgets are squeezed and being part of a larger organisation might enable them to fight their corner more effectively.
PANN was founded in 1982 with the help of the PAT and its then deputy general secretary, John Andrews. This is one reason why the two unions operate out of the same building in Derby.