Teachers are gearing up for hard - but colourful - industrial action over pay equity, higher pay and lower workloads.

About 380 primary and early childhood teachers at the NZ Educational Institute's annual conference in Rotorua today made multi-coloured placards, sang about "the sisterhood" and exercised to music in line with two women filmed posturing outside Parliament to make the case for pay equity.

The teachers, who are overwhelmingly female, have lodged pay equity claims for 425 education support workers in early childhood and about 12,000 teacher aides in schools, and have signalled that they will lodge an equity claim for private early childhood teachers to match a deal won for public kindergarten teachers in 2002.

They are also gearing up for what executive member Liam Rutherford described as a claim for a "seismic shift" in pay and conditions for the country's 29,000 primary teachers and principals, whose collective agreements expire in May and June next year.

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Former institute president Louise Green warned that they would have to "flex our industrial muscle" to win the claims.

Hutt Valley education support worker Jacoline Brink told the conference that her work was undervalued compared to her husband's work as a corrections officer - an occupation which the institute tried to use as a male-dominated comparator in negotiations which the Ministry of Education has agreed to treat as a pay equity case.

The ministry has rejected corrections officers as a comparator on the basis that their work is too different from education support workers, and negotiators are now talking about using more closely-related male-dominated jobs in the social services.

Brink said she and her husband migrated with their young children from South Africa 10 years ago. She wanted to train as an early childhood teacher but the family could not afford to live on one income, so she started work five years ago as an education support worker, paid by the ministry to work with individual children with special needs in early childhood centres.

The current starting rate is just under $17 an hour and Brink is now on the top rate of $19.87 an hour. Hours fluctuate with the needs of children in her area, and next term she will go down to only seven and a half hours a week with one child because another child has left.

In contrast, her husband earns about $55,000 a year - about $26 an hour.

"Last year we tried to buy a house. We still don't own a house," she said.

"Every time we sat down with the mortgage broker we got all those things on the table. When it got to my job it was, 'It sounds good that I work for the Ministry of Education, but it comes down to my pay.' Then the comments come back, 'Oh you have to go and find a real job.'

"Our role is not seen as valuable, yet we work with the most valuable people and that's children."

Negotiations for the next group, teacher aides in schools, are still in the early stages of agreeing on a job description of what teacher aides actually do.

The institute signalled that it will start campaigning immediately for the broader primary teachers' agreement with the aim of a big leap in both pay rates and paid preparation and marking time equivalent to winning equity with secondary teacher pay rates in 1998.

"Our current salary movement has us falling further behind doctors, lawyers and other professionals that we have historically been compared with," Rutherford said.

"Changes in our terms and conditions of service that we are talking about are going to take one heck of a campaign. This campaign is going to require us to mobilise our members in ways that we have never done before.

"We won [the fight against] bulk funding. Now we have to do it again."