WHAT RELATIONSHIP to have with the government was the question that dominated the conferences of the three main teachers' unions over Easter. And it is likely to be at the centre of debates at other union conferences over the next three months.
The National Union of Teachers (NUT) came out strongly against New Labour's policies on everything from the war on Iraq to its plan for teaching on the cheap. Union officials and delegates alike reported that it is the confrontational stance the NUT has adopted that has led to a dramatic rise in recruitment.
At the other extreme, the conference of the second largest teachers' union, the NASUWT, was treated to warm words of praise for the government from the union's leaders. They have embraced the government's "remodelling" of teaching, which will lead to replacing teachers with lower paid classroom assistants.
But, despite passing policy affirming that deal, NASUWT conference delegates came out with a string of complaints about it not leading to reduced workload for teachers. Education secretary Charles Clarke went to the NASUWT conference. But in the coffee bars many delegates voiced their disquiet at being seen to be so close to New Labour. "The president giving Clarke a peck on the cheek was a nauseating spectacle," said a delegate from the south east of England.
"This is the government that is continuing with league tables, attacking our pensions, and restricting union rights-all of which we have opposed at this conference." Delegates to the conference of the ATL, the third teachers' union, were even more sceptical.
Their debate on the remodelling agreement centred on calls for industrial action if the money is not there to reduce teachers' workload. That is still a long way short of the NUT's position, which is to oppose the deal on principle. But it does point to potential flashpoints.
The ATL conference also voted to set up a strike fund, a major step for a union which had been built on the basis that it did not take action. There were further signs of a continuing shift in the ATL away from being a professional association and towards being a trade union.
The debate on pensions, for example, heard many calls for the ATL to throw itself into the battle alongside other unions to stop the government raising the retirement age from 60 to 65. In answer to the question of where the money for pensions should come from, Maxine Bradshaw from North Wales said, "Well, the government seemed to find the money at the drop of a hat for an illegal war on Iraq."
Such political points are new to debates at the ATL. The NUT's position of confronting the government chimes best with classroom teachers. But the key question of how to turn words of opposition to New Labour into successful action was not properly addressed at the NUT conference.
In large part that was because all eyes were on the forthcoming general secretary election in June. But activists in local NUT associations know that another year of verbal opposition to the government, with no concrete results, will breed at best cynicism. At worst it will bring a mood of defeatism which will strengthen those who want to move the union back towards partnership with New Labour.
That's why several associations are backing an activists' conference on 26 June. It comes the week after the TUC's pensions march, two weeks after a campaign conference against SATs tests and during the general secretary election. It is set to map out a strategy for a fightback over pay, pensions and attacks on comprehensive education.
And it is also an opportunity for forces on the left of the union to come together to launch the kind of organisation that can galvanise the wider layers of teachers who now want to resist what the government is doing. The first meeting of the newly elected NUT executive last week gave a further sign that those preaching partnership should be thrown onto the defensive in the unions.
For the first time in 30 years the left won positions on influential executive subcommittees. They got six places out of 18 as some of the dominant executive grouping broke ranks and decided not to place all power in the hands of a pro-partnership faction.