Like exam results in August, the Easter conferences of the teacher unions provide media headlines during a thin news period. This year, however, with so many important events taking place around the world and in the UK, the conferences have been further down the news bulletins. That is no bad thing, since the annual multiple strike threats from the NUT do little to enhance the image of the profession and the classroom horror stories from the NASUWT and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) are unlikely to improve the prospects for increased recruitment to teaching.
New in 2016, however, is the discussion by NUT and ATL delegates of a merger – or ‘working together’ between these two very different unions.
Having six teacher unions has enabled governments to divide and rule the teaching profession, so a reduction in the number of unions is to be welcomed. History suggests that teacher unions become more successful after they have grown through merger.
The National Association of Schoolmasters merged with the Union of Women Teachers in 1976 to form the NASUWT. Two years later the Association of Assistant Mistresses (AAM) joined forces with the Assistant Masters' Association (AMA) to form the Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association (AMMA), which became the ATL in 1993 and absorbed the Association for College Management in 2011.
The AAM and the AMA had been part of the Joint Four with the Headmasters' Association (HMA) and the Association of Headmistresses (AHM), with the two headteacher associations merging in 1977 to form the Secondary Heads' Association, which took in deputy heads from 1983 and later assistant heads and school business managers, and which became the Association of School and College Leaders in 2006.
The NUT and the National Association of Head Teachers have histories stretching back to the 19th century, whereas the sixth and smallest union, Voice, was founded as the Professional Association of Teachers (PAT) in 1970 for teachers who would not take part in any strikes or other industrial action.
All unions are broad churches of people with strongly held and often very different views, so there is always the risk of mergers creating splinter groups. The alliance of NUT and ATL would be a very broad church, from the militant wing of the NUT, annually advocating strike action, to the very moderate wing of the ATL. Government policies in recent years have, however, made the ATL more inclined to support their views with action, so a merger of these two unions, which would not have been a remote possibility 10 years ago, could well create a stronger union than the two separate organisations.
The NASUWT is a different type of union from the NUT and ATL and is strongly opposed to merging with other unions, although there was a period under the previous general secretary, the late Eamonn O’Kane, when mergers were discussed.
'The most logical merger'
Of the six unions, the most logical merger would be between the NAHT and ASCL. Both represent members of school leadership teams and, although ASCL has its membership solely in secondary schools and colleges, the emergence of more all-through schools is blurring the distinction between the two unions.
When I was general secretary of the ASCL, I worked closely with the NAHT and saw an opportunity to bring the two organisations into a single unit in 2010, when both the general secretary of the NAHT, Mick Brookes, and I were due to retire simultaneously. There was a stronger appetite for merger in the NAHT than in the ASCL, whose governing council rejected my proposal to start talks. I still see that as a lost opportunity, but these decisions are not permanent in the rapidly changing world of education and, if two much more different organisations, the NUT and ATL, can bring their courtship to the altar, enough people in the NAHT and the ASCL will surely realise the benefits of having a single 46,000-strong school leaders’ union, dedicated to supporting those in school leadership posts, providing development and information, and arguing the school leaders’ case with government and other education agencies.
The separate interests of school leaders and classroom teachers mean it is likely there will always be at least two unions, but a reduction in number from the present six would surely be in the interests of the profession as a whole.
John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary head, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion. He tweets as @johndunford