Much attention has been focused in the past year on child abuse and children at risk. Drug addiction and youth crime have become issues of national concern. The Brendan O'Donnell murder trial highlighted the problem of disturbed children and the inadequacy of the social services in providing adequate facilities for young people with acute behavioural problems. What is less often commented upon is the extent to which the school system - and teachers in particular - are often left alone to cope with such children sometimes providing the only safe haven in their disturbed world. The stresses and tensions of the outside would reflect themselves all too clearly in the classroom and the contemporary teacher could be forgiven for considering on occasion that she or he is as much a social worker as an educator.

As the representatives of the State's 40,000 teachers meet in their annual conferences today, it is an appropriate moment to consider this aspect of the role of the teacher and the increasing stresses and strains which a rapidly changing society places upon them; and, indeed, the increasing demands which we as a society make upon teachers in terms of parental meetings, pressure for examination results and curriculum reform. Maintaining discipline in the classroom has become more difficult, parental expectations of schools have become more demanding and changing social circumstances, from marital breakdown to juvenile crime, have all added to the workload of teachers.

Over the past few years there has been a welcome if bewildering variety of curriculum reform: Junior Certificate, Transition Year, Applied Leaving Certificate, new Leaving Cert syllabuses, sex and relationships education. From a minimal level of in career training, an EU bonanza of £35 million has produced a level of training which created severe difficulties in schools last year through teacher absences. It is perhaps understandable that teachers should feel that they are misunderstood and that their efforts to adjust to changing circumstances are not fully appreciated.

The White Paper on education which has produced so many worthwhile proposals for the future of the education system has also generated a level of uncertainty and tension for teachers, leaving them apprehensive about how their future working conditions will develop. In these circumstances, the productivity required under the pay deal, though minimal to the outside observer, proved to be one step too far for second level teachers who saw themselves overburdened with change.

Regrettably, it now appears that the annual conferences instead of engaging in valuable discussion of the exciting and important changes taking place in the educational system and securing an all important teacher input into these changes will instead bog down in recriminations over the pay and productivity deal. It is a no win situation for everybody involved. None of the changes proposed in the White Paper, either in curriculum or management reform, can go ahead without the co operation of teachers. As last year's industrial action demonstrated, vetoing reform is in many ways an even more potent weapon than strike action.

Yet, for the Government to concede a teachers pay deal without added productivity would be to jeopardise the whole basis of the PCW. The hope must be that this week's deliberations will indicate some possible route to a compromise. Otherwise educational reform may grind to a halt. Teaching is still a highly respected profession and teachers enjoy a deservedly high status in Irish society; anything which would jeopardise that situation would be regrettable.