Anna Stanton was having "just another day" in her first year teaching at a Midlands primary school. Her Year 4 children were working with fabrics, and an orderly queue was waiting at Anna's desk for help with the fiddly task of threading a needle.
Suddenly a child cried in pain. To her horror Anna saw the girl had a needle stuck in her eye. It's at moments like these that teachers discover the benefits of belonging to a union.
"Teachers need to be on their guard," says Brian Carter, Midlands regional official for the NUT (National Union of Teachers). "But they can't be everywhere. Accidents will happen. When they do, those teachers will need some support."
The compensation culture has been imported from the United States. Cases like these may be investigated first by the school, then by the Health and Safety Executive, and then again by solicitors following up a claim for damages.
Carter says that in the past student teachers could have expected automatic support from their head, but today that is not always the case: "That kind of experience can be very traumatic for an NQT, and when it happens it's good to have someone there to look after your interests."
Most student teachers will have been offered free union membership and many take up all the offers, giving them multiple membership. Once in the job some teachers let their membership lapse, and all will have to decide which union or association to join.
There are five main teaching unions. The big two, NUT and NASUWT (National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers), have the majority of teachers in membership, followed by the ATL (Association of Teachers and Lecturers) and PAT (Professional Association of Teachers). In Scotland the Educational Institute (EIS) has a majority.
There are policy differences between the unions. But observers are sometimes surprised by the level of agreement, though PAT's "no strike" policy does set it apart. The NUT has been traditionally strongest in primary schools, whereas the NASUWT membership is more secondary based.
Often the decision about which union to join comes down to choosing the one that is strongest in the school. There's a lot to be said for the support of colleagues.
All the teaching unions offer a legal advice and spport service to help with the kind of problems faced by teachers like Anna Stanton. If cases go to court, which they rarely do, union support can be invaluable.
For NQTs the most pressing need may be for advice on interviews, appointments and contracts. "Fixed term contracts are often offered, even when the post was advertised as a permanent position," says Brian Carter. Another common concern is the starting salary offered by the school.
"Students leaving college will find that governing bodies have a lot of discretion in the contract they offer," Carter says. "In the Midlands we are finding that a large proportion of NQTs are mature students, particularly in the primary sector. For every three years of former employment there should be one increment paid. This can be important because the more spine points an NQT can gain at the start of their career, the closer they are to point 9 and the threshold. In some schools we've reached the stage of negotiating individual contracts."
There is rarely any documentation about contract details at interviews, and NQTs' minds are naturally focused on the job they want. But once a job offer has been made, applicants should check the fine print and call their union for help if necessary.
Induction features increasingly often in Brian Carter's caseload: "We've already represented two Midlands teachers who have been unsuccessful with their induction year." Failure to successfully complete the induction year can mean just four weeks notice before withdrawal of QTS. It's a real worry for many NQTs, especially if they aren't getting help from the school or LEA. "When we work for an NQT we can ensure diplomatically that they get the support they are entitled to," says Carter.
School reps can offer informal advice. In a dispute with the head, teachers are entitled to have a "friend" on hand, and in most schools that would be the union rep. Unions also represent a way to influence government policy on education issues.
Which union you choose will depend on what you are looking for, but it makes sense to join.
Anna Stanton is a pseudonym. Phil Revell is an ex-teacher who acted as the union rep in a large Midlands secondary school. ATL - www.askatl.org.uk, 020 7930 6441; NASUWT - www.teachersunion.org.uk, 0121 453 6150; NUT - www.teachers. org.uk, 020 7388 6191; PAT - www.pat.org.uk, 01332 372337