The concept of universal free state education has never been more at risk from the financial onslaught on local authorities, Ronnie Smith, general secretary, told delegates.
"The charges for music instruction, charges for nursery education, with the grotesque spectacle of teachers scrutinising benefit books to negotiate a discount for the deserving poor, vouchers for nursery education and the prospect that only the progeny of the rich will be able to emerge from further and higher education without a huge burden of debt hanging around their neck. Once the principle is conceded, where does it stop?" he asked.
Parents and teachers were now seeing what budget figures meant. Dismantling the advisory service, abandoning outdoor education, withdrawal of visiting specialists from primary schools, excision of subjects from the curriculum and scores of school closures.
Despite the cuts, comprehensive education was doing "an astonishingly good job in the most adverse of circumstances", Mr Smith said. But teachers had to face other realities, including concern about pupil performance in mathematics in early secondary, primary teachers' discomfort in science and school closures.