The disruption of secondary schools in this teachers' pay negotiation round has gone on far too long. It started last year, continued through the period of pupils' preparation for final exams, and resumed at the outset of this year. Schools are now well into the second term and staff are again staging wildcat strikes that promise only to get worse.

The issue has gone beyond a straightforward tussle between the teachers' union and the Government. Many teachers have clearly lost confidence in the union, the Post Primary Teachers' Association, to strike a bargain that comes some way to meeting their claims. Twice now, the PPTA has reached a draft settlement with the Government's negotiators and for the second time it has been greeted with derision in the staffrooms. One after another, school staff are demonstrating their discontent with one-day strikes. Something has to give, and in the first place it ought to be the PPTA leadership. Each time teachers have been presented with what they consider a soft settlement their suspicion has grown that their union is looking out for the interests of the Labour Government as much, if not more, than their own.

And it is true that this Government has been a patsy of the PPTA. From the abolition of bulk-funding to the restoration of zoning, it has largely restored the school system to the union's desired state. The costs of those changes, while ominous in long-run economic terms, do not disturb the Government accounts in the way that a substantial teachers pay improvement would. In the Budget today Labour wants to present itself as a strong and prudent fiscal manager, deserving of re-election. The proposed pay settlements suggest a grateful PPTA executive is doing its bit for the cause.

Teachers are unimpressed. They know they are seriously underpaid, as practically everyone acknowledges. Much as they may have disliked bulk-funding, the loss of zoning and much else, they undoubtedly feel more strongly about their pay. When they see a Government like this one in power it would be remarkable if they did not regard it as a rare opportunity to lift teaching salaries to a more respectable level.

The trouble with the teaching profession is that it seems not to realise why it is low paid. The reason has little to do with miserly governments or undervalued education or school holidays or any of the supposed misunderstandings of a dedicated profession. It has much to do with the way the profession is organised.

In most developed countries teachers are one of the last centrally unionised segments of the workforce. New Zealand is no exception. Throughout the 1990s teachers steadfastly resisted the drive for workplace bargaining, individual contracts and performance pay. All of those possibilities were contained in the idea of bulk-funding schools, under which boards of trustees would pay staff salaries out of their bulk grant.

The PPTA, which stood to lose its national bargaining role, convinced its members that bulk-funds would be hard to increase and teachers' salaries would suffer at the hands of boards. The opposite was likely to happen. Boards of trustees become intimately acquainted with the work of teachers and most stoutly support their case for better pay. Many boards do not even dock their staff pay for days lost to strikes. Boards would be a powerful lobby for more education spending if they had to pay to recruit and retain good teachers. And in those circumstances Governments would have more confidence that they would be paying for performance. As things are, they must bargain standard rates for all. While this system persists teachers are destined for disappointment, and education will continue to suffer.