Education unions gain 46,000 members since pandemic

With industrial action looming large after the teacher pay award, how strong is education union membership? Matilda Martin analyses the latest figures
5th August 2022, 7:00am


Education unions gain 46,000 members since pandemic
Education unions gain 46,000 members since pandemic

After the fury sparked by last month’s teacher pay decision, the prospect of industrial action next term - potentially including strikes - looms large for schools and the government.

But how many teachers and school leaders might be covered by any such action, and is education union membership growing or falling?

A Tes analysis of union membership figures provides some clues.

While unions saw flat or faltering membership numbers before the pandemic, they all experienced an uptick in 2020. And most have since built on this growth, according to figures filed in recent months.

Overall, since 2019, the combined membership of the four unions has increased by nearly 46,000 - or 6 per cent - with the full membership of each outlined below. 

Data showing latest union membership data

School leader unions

Overall the two school leadership unions have seen a rise of 1,963 new members.

Specifically, the NAHT school leaders’ union has seen a 2.3 per cent year-on-year increase in members, from 45,601 in 2020 to 46,631 in 2021.

Meanwhile, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has seen its membership grow by 4.5 per cent, from 20,704 in 2020 to 21,637 in 2021.

How do these figures compare against the number of potential ASCL and NAHT union members in the workforce? Working this out is not straightforward.

DfE figures show that, between 2020 and 2021, there was a 0.24 per cent increase in the number of full-time equivalent “leadership teachers” - defined by the department as deputy headteachers, assistant headteachers and headteachers.

However, the two unions attract members from a broader range of roles than the three above.

What is clear is that numbers have been growing since 2017 - by 12.1 per cent in NAHT’s case and 15.7 per cent for the ASCL.

And the trend appears to be continuing; since filing the 2021 annual return, ASCL says it now has more than 22,000 members. 

What could be behind the rise? Julie McCulloch, ASCL director of policy, said the union had ”significantly stepped up” communications and support for members during the pandemic.

She hoped that this had been “of help during the crisis at a time when they have been under enormous additional pressure”.

She added: “Sadly, the problems of severe teacher shortages and funding pressures have resurfaced with a vengeance at the tail end of the crisis, and we will be fighting on behalf of the sector for significant improvements from the government over both these critical issues.”

It is fair to say that the pandemic saw the government come under fire for contradictory and often last-minute policy announcements relating to Covid rules. 

NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman said school leaders had “turned to their union for support and guidance when that has been in short supply from government”.

The union’s “steady growth” had seen leaders “rediscover the strength of mutual support and the power of collective endeavour”, he added.

Mixed picture for teaching unions 

For the NEU and NASUWT teaching unions, with a membership that draws from the wider teaching workforce - including 465,526 full-time teachers and 275,812 teaching assistants - the picture is mixed.

Both saw an uptick during the pandemic, after a previous decline.

But after NASUWT recruited an extra 20,000 members in 2020, the numbers have since fallen back by around half that amount in 2021 - falling from 311,920 to 302,407.

It did not comment on this latest figure when approached by Tes.

In contrast, the NEU’s most recent figures show year-on-year growth of 2.4 per cent to 457,368. And members have continued to increase in recent months, it says.

According to a spokesperson when contacted at the end of June, while the sector was waiting for pay award decisions, the union saw a “new membership spike” over the previous fortnight on the same period last year, “with more than double the number of new joiners”. However, the union declined to provide figures.

Union ‘alternative’

Another organisation, Edapt, was set up in 2012, branding itself as an “apolitical, independent” alternative to teaching unions that would provide school staff with “casework services and edu-legal support in individual employment disputes and allegations”.

It says it does not “participate in political lobbying or strike action”.

How might Edapt affect teaching unions?

In May, unions expressed concerns over government plans to allow school staff to be accompanied into grievance hearings by a representative of a body “other than a union”, such as Edapt. 

The NEU said this was part of a plan to curtail trade union influence.

But its impact is difficult to assess, partly as it does not publish membership figures, and declined to provide them when asked by Tes.

Plans for industrial action

Following the announcement of the teacher pay awards, most unions plan to consult their members on potential industrial action, which in some cases could extend to a strike.


Ms McCulloch said that the union would be surveying its members in the autumn term to “fully understand the pressure on budgets”.

The union will also be consulting with members over “long-term pay erosion following another below-inflation pay award, and asking them what steps they want to take next”.

This will include the option of industrial action, which Ms McCulloch said could be “action short of strike action rather than an actual walk out”.


Mr Whiteman said there was “frustration among members” that he had “not seen before” and the unions would be carrying out a consultation with members over the summer. 

He said: “At this stage, I would rule nothing in or out”.


Following the announcements of what it termed a “very poor pay proposal” last month, the NEU said it will be looking to consult members this autumn. “If they indicate that they wish to take strike action, we will move to a full ballot,” joint general secretary Mary Bousted said at the time.

Since then, the NEU has confirmed to Tes it will hold a provisional ballot in late September.


Previous to the announcement on teacher pay awards last month, NASUWT said it was considering balloting members over industrial action if a 12 per cent pay increase was not offered. 

The government’s response 

A Department for Education spokesperson said the department had accepted the recommendations of the School Teachers’ Review Body for the 2022 to 2023 year and was “awarding teachers the highest pay awards in a generation”.

The spokesperson said the pay rise was “a responsible solution” which recognised “the hard work of teachers and supports with the cost of living, and the sound management of schools’ budgets”.

“By contrast, double digit pay awards for public sector workers would lead to sustained higher levels of inflation, which would have a far bigger impact on people’s real incomes in the long run.”

The spokesperson added that funding for the pay awards would come from the “generous school funding settlement at last year’s Spending Review”.

“The settlement is heavily frontloaded with £4 billion extra going into schools this year and a total increase of £7 billion over the three years up to 2024-25.”

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