Britain's biggest teachers' union is set to lose more than 2,000 members at a stroke after education psychologists voted to cut their historic affiliation to the National Union of Teachers and become an independent trade union.
The decision, taken at the annual general meeting of the Association of Educational Psychologists in Scarborough last Saturday, will be highly embarrassing for the NUT, which prides itself on holding the loyalty of the more idealistic, "caring" members of the profession, in contrast to the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, which traditionally campaigns on a narrower, pay-and-conditions platform.
The psychologists have been affiliated members of the NUT since the AEP's inception in 1962. On Saturday they voted by a comfortable majority to give the NUT notice of its decision to sever that connection. The AEP national executive is confident that the full membership will support the divorce - ballot papers will be sent out in two weeks and the AEP would then give the NUT a year's notice. The AEP could reverse the decision at the next AGM if members feel that the executive has not organised suitable alternatives to the services currently provided by the NUT (such as legal support).
The loss of the educational psychologists will narrow the membership gap between the NUT, which currently claims 192,009, and the NASUWT, which claims 157,146, and will heighten the rivalry between the two unions at a time when the NASUWT is attracting massive publicity through its implacable stance on discipline and exclusion following the rows over Manton Junior School in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, The Ridings in West Yorkshire and other cases.
The root of the psychologists' dissatisfaction is their belief that the NUT is failing to support their pay demands on the Soulbury Committee, which negotiates pay for educational psychologists, youth workers, and local authority advisory and inspection staff.
The NUT holds the bulk of the voting rights on the committee by virtue of its psychologist members - the AEP's decision is likely to increase the psychologists' influence on the committee at the expense of the NUT. The NUT, said one delegate, has consistently cast its votes in favour of the other members of Soulbury. Educational psychologists currently earn between Pounds 20,691 for a beginner and Pounds 30,567 for a principal EP.
Steve Synod, who leads negotiations on the Soulbury committee for the NUT, said that the NUT was very disappointed by the decision but aware that it would take 12 months to implement. "We will be trying to persuade them to stay, " he said. He added that he had asked to address the conference but had not been invited, which he considered "astonishing". "Despite what they say, we have never voted against the AEP - we vote on the merits of a particular issue. "
The AEP has also been advised that it could arrange legal advice for a fraction of the Pounds 64,000 a year it is currently paying the NUT - between Pounds 5,000 and Pounds 10,000 has been suggested.
"The NUT is ripping us off right, left and centre - it's nothing but a millstone round our neck," said one disgusted delegate, who preferred to remain anonymous.
But Jeanne Currie, a past president and founder member of the AEP, preferred to see the development as a coming of age. "The AEP was a tiny group 35 years ago, with no experience of union affairs. We were babes in arms who needed nannying. But we have grown in size and experience and inevitably need to assert our own identity. We shouldn't be hanging on to anyone's coat-tails. "