Can Tony Blair afford to ignore them?
ONE question will dominate the Easter union conferences: how do you get a government with a majority of 178 and an evangelical zeal for school reform to change its mind?
Teacher unions have grappled with this problem since Labour was elected as their members faced up to the Government's assault on school standards.
Union leaders, like the majority of their members, rejoiced at the Tories' defeat. Under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, they were no longer a respected part of the Establishment. After a series of disputes over pay and conditions in the 1980s, they lost their right to annual salary negotiations, and became increasingly marginalised. The largest and most militant union, the National Union of Teachers, lost a tenth of its members in a single year as teachers deserted to more "moderate" unions. As a result, the main players began to concentrate on "bread and butter" issues, competing to provide the best services to their members.
But if union chiefs hoped that Tony Blair - who avowed that education was his top priority - would restore their former influence they have been disappointed.Instead, Labour has pursued a tough line with the profession.
"The Government targets its announcements at an audience well beyond schools," said John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association.
Doug McAvoy, his counterpart at the National Union of Teachers, says: "When they came to power, the Government ignored the resource teacher organisations represented and we underestimated the Government's inexperience in implementing policy.
"The greatest problem with the Government is that it hasn't understood what's happening in the classroom.
"We are becoming sharper and wiser about defending members' interests. We have learned not to compromise," he added.
If there was a turning point in Labour's relationship with the NUT, then it was performance pay for teachers. Mr McAvoy described it as a "disaster" and the union will debate strike action at its conference this week.
The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers has taken a more relaxed approach to the issue choosing to give priority to campaigns against bureaucracy and violence in schools.
"I predicted the workload problem would get worse before the election," said Nigel de Gruchy, NASUWT general secretary. "Labour under Blair backed away from many things they promised under John Smith."
The NASUWT is once again threatening industrial action if teachers' workloads are not reduced and it has campaigned vigorously against the Government's drive to reduce the number of exclusions.
The two biggest unions are the most vociferous of the six who represent teachers and heads. But headlines do not equate to influence and industrial action may just encourage ministers to show how tough they are.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the smaller Professional Association of Teachers has taken a quieter approach.
Richard Margrave, ATL spokesman, says teachers are disappointed when they see unions being defensive. He thinks teachers want their unions to present teaching as an attractive profession. The fact that union representatives only managed to get half the elected seats on the General Teaching Council, despite their campaigning resources, suggests there is widespread disaffection with the unions.
Government insiders say unions who do not shout their opposition from the rooftops but, instead, engage in constructive dialogue on individual issues have the greater impact on policy. They point to the headteachers associations and the ATL as bodies whose concerns are taken seriously in Whitehall.
This implicit criticism of the "big two" is backed by David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Headteahers. "A government with a big majority needs to be handled more sensibly and carefully than some people give it credit for," he said. "There is no substitute for producing well-
researched evidence and getting stuck into negotiations with ministers in areas where they can make concessions."
Mr Hart believes that, given the Government's emphasis on leadership in schools, heads' unions will continue to have more influence than their classroom counterparts. Tony Blair was the first Prime Minister to appear at the NAHT's annual conference last year. And ministers' reaction to recent criticism that heads are overloaded by bureaucracy was not to tell them to stop whingeing, but to promise to do better.
Mr de Gruchy fears that outright opposition to the Government's pay reforms risks damaging the unions.
"We have won some concessions but there is a danger of the unions talking themselves into defeat," he said.
Mr Hart says it is a case of knowing which battles are winnable: "Both bureaucracy and getting funding through to schools are areas where the Government can make changes without giving up any of its core policies."
The number of times the six union leaders have met together since the election can be counted on the fingers of one hand. But when they have worked together, they have been effective.
A joint campaign by SHA and the NASUWT forced ministers to relax their rules on exclusion to make it easier for schools to show disruptive pupils the door. And on performance-related pay, the Government has simplified appraisal and scrapped plans for tougher working conditions on those who pass the threshold.
Equally, critics of the softly-softly approach can point to the Government's decision to oblige department heads to take part in colleagues' threshold assessments as proof of its limited effect.
Ironically, however, union bosses have something to celebrate. After recovering from the membership losses of a decade ago the two main unions have bounced back with buoyant recruitment figures and only the non-striking PAT has lost ground. In that respect, at least, they have never had it so good.
SIX OF THE BEST
Members: 31,590 teachers, heads,
Priorities: Class size, recruitment, starting salary
Key success: More pay for teachers
Soundbite: "We're fighting for professionalism"
Members: 40,868 mainly primary heads
Priorities: Bureaucracy, getting money to schools.
Key success: Moves towards self-management of schools
Profile: Speak with authority
Soundbite: "Initiativitis and over-prescription make a fairly lethal cocktail."
Members: 168,027 teachers and lecturers
Priorities: Tackling social exclusion, funding, bureaucracy
Key success: No new contract for teachers passing pay threshold.
Profile: Staying in the background
Soundbite: "Pay reforms are the best opportunity of a lifetime for a large number of teachers to get a significant pay rise."
Priorities: Protect pupils from violent teachers, workload, naming and shaming
Key success: Relaxation of rules on exclusion.
Profile: Further in your face
Soundbite: "The myth of a return to Victorian
payment by results is a nonsense."
Priorities: Stop performance pay, guaranteed non-contact time, bureaucracy.
Successes: Changes to performance pay plans.
Profile: In your face
Soundbite: "The Green paper on pay was a
heads and deputies
Priorities: National funding formula, concerned about post-16 reforms, workload.
Key success: Exclusions.
Profile: Bigger than its membership
Soundbite: "I don't think the Government should ever produce a new education policy without discussing it with heads."