Altogether now

NUT, NASUWT, ATL . there are a variety of unions to represent teachers’ interests, so how do you choose? And would just one be better? Dorothy Lepkowska reports
12th December 2008, 12:00am


Altogether now

In spring 2001, something unique happened among the teaching unions. All bar one teacher out of almost 3,000 delegates to the unions’ annual Easter conferences voted in support of an historic joint motion calling for a 35-hour working week and threatening to strike if ministers failed to act.

This show of unity rattled the establishment. Here, for the first time anyone could remember, teachers were standing (almost) as one and ministers were soon sitting around a table with union leaders and discussing grievances.

This marks a strong contrast to this month, when the UK’s two biggest teaching unions - the NASUWT and the National Union of Teachers - locked horns over membership figures, battling it out to prove who has the biggest voice.

Teaching is one of the most heavily unionised professions in the world. Close colleagues work well together and co-operate in school, even though they belong to rival unions. So how do teachers decide which union to join, and why?

The most obvious reason, of course, is safety in numbers. Having secured significant improvements in pay and working conditions over the past decade, teachers now have other concerns.

In an increasingly litigious society, they want the security of knowing there is someone supporting them if the going gets tough.

Free membership is offered to students to encourage them to join, in the hope that they will sign up once they have started work full-time.

Amanda Cross, a newly qualified teacher at Hanham High School in Bristol, was a member of three unions as a trainee before settling on the NASUWT when she began her first job.

She says: “Part of me was unsure about joining a union such as the NUT that spoke regularly about strike action because, while I understand that is one way of making people take note, it was not the reason I came into teaching. I wanted to make a difference to children. I understand that drastic action is sometimes needed, but I suppose it is something I’m happy for others to do.

“I think it’s important to be in a union because you never know what might go wrong. The NASUWT was strong in this school and was the first union to contact me about being a full-time member when my free subscription ran out. So it wasn’t that difficult a decision to make.”

Andy Brown, head of drama at Ballymena Academy in County Antrim, made a conscious decision to join ATL after considering what the others had to offer. He is a self-confessed political animal, has held several roles in the ATL’s Northern Ireland association over the past 15 years and is the union’s junior vice-president.

“Like every student teacher I joined all the unions to pick up the free memberships, and the pens and folders,” he says. “But it quickly became clear that ATL was the union for me because it dealt with issues responsibly, without resorting to knee-jerk reactions.

“I have always been politically motivated and believe unions give a voice to the little man, and that the collectivism is important. ATL seemed to be active and treated its members as intelligent professionals. I didn’t want to be led by the nose and enter a herd mentality.”

Teachers also need to find a union that suits them best as individuals.

Allison Ward, who teaches at Harrow Gate Primary in Stockton-on-Tees, says she’s not politically active but remembers demonstrating against the education policies of Margaret “milk-snatcher” Thatcher, as a student in the Seventies.

She joined the NUT in 1986 and says teachers have to balance the implications of union membership with the needs of pupils, and their vocation as a teacher.

“In the early days of teaching, I might have been more approving of strike action as a threat of last resort, but I have a constant conflict with wanting to do the best for the children. It just feels to me that industrial action would be criminal if it were to damage the education of my pupils. Going on strike has to be a matter of conscience for the individual.”

Ironically, while the joint motion of 2001 secured better conditions for teachers in the form of the national agreement on teacher workload, it has also driven teachers farther apart.

The NUT’s refusal to join the agreement and turn its back on social partnership with the Government has left the union out in the cold where collective bargaining is concerned.

For Allison, it has meant reaping the benefits from improvements in primary working conditions, such as the guaranteed minimum 10 per cent free time for planning, preparation and assessment (PPA), secured by unions other than her own. “I know I am benefiting from PPA, but I don’t believe that is true of every primary teacher in every school because PPA takes time to organise, and not every head has those resources at their disposal,” she says. “I understand why the NUT took the stance it did, and I have to go along with PPA because it has been implemented in my school. But since the NUT has fought for benefits for teachers in other circumstances and disputes, I feel I can live with this.”

Chris Husbands, professor of education at London University’s Institute of Education, says the pangs of conscience and guilt many teachers feel about taking industrial action has some of its roots in the disruptive and damaging strikes of the Eighties.

“There is a sense that the action of the Eighties caused quite serious damage to the image of the profession and the contemporary union leaders know that it has to be used sparingly.

“Public image can be important to member recruitment. Teachers are a lot more motivated about being with children and educating the next generation than by militancy and taking on the establishment.

“Teachers can’t hammer home to pupils one day that coming to school is important and the next send them home because they want to go on strike, so what tends to happen is that national executives use the threat of action as a bargaining tool, but rarely act on it.”

Voice, the union for education professionals, previously called the Professional Association of Teachers, is the only one of the four main classroom associations in England not to be affiliated to the TUC, and has a no-strike policy.

Philip Parkin, the general secretary, says: “We believe in the power of negotiation rather than industrial action, or the threat of it. Yet we were still admitted as members of the social partnership, which proves the point.

“During the times when other unions have taken industrial action we experience an increased interest in our union and a rise in membership. But we know we are a niche market.”

Dr Melanie Simms, of Warwick University’s Business School and a specialist in industrial relations, says unions representing every industry and profession are going through a state of flux and trying to reinvent themselves.

Teaching is no different, she says. Staff turnover, and people joining and leaving the profession at different times in their lives, means that the profile of union membership changes constantly.

“One area of difficulty will be in attracting new members, because young people starting work tend to be less politically motivated,” she says. “That’s why it is probably worth teaching unions giving away free membership to students and catching them early.

“Teaching unions remain in a strong bargaining position because employers recognise them as the legitimate voice of the workforce, which cannot be said of all professions. And the more members they have, the greater becomes their claim to legitimacy. However, they are defined by the interests of their members, so union policy is determined to some extent by their membership’s willingness for change.”

Dr Simms says that while the notion of a single teaching union might be dormant for the time being, it would never completely disappear while there were so many successful precedents for merger.

“The concept of one union has been successfully applied in higher education and some public sector areas where there is a lot of common ground,” she adds.

“In teaching, however, there remain for the time being at least clear ideological and political issues that would make merger difficult.”

Christina McAnea, head of education at the public sector union, Unison - a merger between the former Nalgo, COHSE and NUPE unions - says that amalgamation had helped to concentrate minds and offered a more co- ordinated approach to collective bargaining and negotiations.

“The school staff in the former unions had virtually no voice, but now we have strength in numbers and greater negotiating power,” she says. “There is no doubt that it has given those groups of workers a much higher profile.”

In schools there might be more uniting the teaching unions than dividing them, but talk of merger has petered out for the time being across the whole of the UK. In Wales, the Welsh-medium union Undeb Cenedlaethaol Athrawon Cymru (UCAC), said it would resist measures that would result in merger.

Elaine Edwards, general secretary of the 4,000-strong organisation, says areas of common ground exist between UCAC and the other unions, and they worked together where possible. “Problems can arise, however, because those unions tend to be more influenced by what is happening in England, and one of our main areas of campaigning is for a devolved system of education for Wales,” she says.

In Scotland, the Educational Institute of Scotland remains the largest teachers’ organisation, with about 60,000 members, and is a strong advocate of the creation of one union, Ronnie Smith, its general secretary says.

“There are far fewer issues dividing us than at many times in the past. Pay grades have been made uniform across the primary and secondary sectors in Scotland, and we are looking at a new curriculum that will span the age ranges,” he says.

“But while the logic for professional unity is there we seem to be farther apart than for many years. Headteachers have recently walked away from the national bargaining forum and we are quite fragmented. The prospect of one big dynamic union is a long way away.”

In England, there would have to be a strong politicial wind blowing for the unions to move towards merger, Professor Husbands says.

He says the proliferation of teaching unions over the past 150 years reflects the diversity of the education sector, with associations continuing, to some extent, to appeal to their historic recruiting grounds - the NUT being the natural choice of primary teachers, ATL of the grammar sector and the NASUWT of women and teachers generally in comprehensives schools, for example.

“Undoubtedly, having so many unions dilutes their power and influence,” he says “but for a merger to take place several things would have to slot into place. You need a common cause, or some good reason for this to happen, and you would also need good relationships between the general secretaries. At the moment, some of these relationships can be quite prickly.”

Few people know more about the drive towards professional unity than Hank Roberts, who is a member of NUT, NASUWT, and a national executive member of ATL. In 1996, he founded Professional Unity 2000, the pressure group that campaigns for a single teaching union.

He says: “The appetite for one union comes and goes, and currently the situation is not helped by the fact that the NUT is outside the social partnership.”

Hank cites a joint campaign by NUT and NASUWT members at Sinfin Community School in Derby, which resulted in industrial action and governors abandoning plans to turn it into an academy. He believes this demonstrates how colleagues can co-operate effectively, regardless of union affiliation. “Where members act together at grass roots level, they can be immensely powerful,” he says.

“There are as many good reasons now why teachers need to be as united as there have ever been. The privatisation of education in the form of academies means that increasingly there is less collective bargaining over pay and conditions, and this is only going to get worse.

“Meanwhile, the number of disputes and case work unions have to deal with is rising because local authorities have fewer staff and less scope to act in a collective way.

“Membership of teaching unions is not a closed shop, but given the nature of the job and the politicisation of the education system by successive governments, it is not surprising that union membership is high.” How that voice is split, however, will continue to stoke debate.


The NUT last month decided against strike action in its ongoing pay dispute, despite members voting 52 per cent in favour of a walkout. Tom Bennett, head of philosophy and religious studies at Raine’s Foundation School in east London and an NUT member, refused to join the previous strike.

“I voted against the strike and went to work despite the school being closed. Why? For a start, it was a ridiculous `mandate’ - 10 per cent of the teachers in England and Wales voted for it. So the majority voted against the strike, or didn’t care enough about the issue to vote. If this had been Zimbabwe, we’d have laughed at the results. But this isn’t a representative democracy; this is a Timarchy, or government by a tiny elite. Well, I didn’t elect them, so concomitantly, they have no moral authority over me. I didn’t enter into contract with them to work or not work as they saw fit; I did sign a contract with my employer, to turn up, to teach and to execute the content of my duty in a manner befitting a professional.

“I would support a principled strike, but this wasn’t one. So our wages haven’t risen as much as we’d like? Have anyone’s? Try working in the private sector and see how fast your wages go up, or how secure your job is. We are extremely well paid, and if you want even more money then take on extra responsibilities and earn it. People outside the profession now think we’re greedy when they see what we get (especially considering our holidays), so our reputation has been damaged, just as it was starting to improve. I remember the strikes of my youth and how badly it affected pupils’ educations. I will never let that happen to children in my care. You want to be a teacher? Then teach, and stop whining because life isn’t perfect.”


General secretary: Chris Keates

Founded: 1919

Membership: 265,202

Maximum annual cost of membership: Pounds 156

Profile: maintained schools, sixth form colleges and FE

Current key campaigns: improvements to working conditions, which includes equality, pupil behaviour and pay.


General secretary (acting): Christine Blower

Founded: 1870

Membership: 292,238

Maximum annual cost of membership: Pounds 142

Profile: qualified teachers, strong presence in primary sector

Current key campaigns: reduction in teachers’ working hours, better work- life balance, higher pay.


General secretary: Mary Bousted

Founded: 1884

Membership: 162,000

Maximum annual cost of membership: Pounds 145

Profile: across the UK maintained and independent sectors: students, NQTs, teachers, lecturers and managersleaders early years to FEHE

Current key campaigns: workload, poverty, public sector pay, asbestos, curriculum.


General secretary: Ronnie Smith

Founded: 1847

Membership: 60,000

Maximum annual cost of membership: Pounds 125

Profile: from pre-school to leaders of higher education institutions

Current key campaigns: class size reduction, curriculum review, local authority budget cuts.


General secretary: Philip Parkin

Founded: 1970

Membership: 38,000

Maximum annual cost of membership: Pounds 141.30

Profile: teachers, education support staff, headteachers, child carers, lecturers

Current key campaigns: induction, professionalism, promoting the Workforce Agreement, implications of wi-fi.


General secretary: Elaine Edwards

Founded: 1940

Membership: 5,000

Maximum annual cost of membership: Pounds 138

Profile: heads and teachers in schools and FE, working in the medium of Welsh

Current key campaigns: teachers’ pay, implementation of Workload Agreement, devolved education, workload.

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