Yet the workloads of unions indicate that teachers are finding it necessary to seek advice on a variety of issues, from unfair dismissal to bullying and contractual disputes.
So what can teachers expect from the union they join? The services offered vary little - the differences lie in the way they are delivered, the extent of support and the time it takes to receive appropriate help.
Members of unions such as the National Union of Teachers, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, the Professional Association of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers have access to legal and professional help with matters that arise from teaching duties. These may include personal, criminal or industrial injury,allegations of incompetence and negligence, superannuation, sick and maternity leave, and unreasonable demands in terms of workload and responsibilities. Members also receive newsletters, information updates and publication details, access to helplines, benevolence payments and advice on professional development - all of which should be impartial and confidential.
Some, such as the ATL, also offer specific advice for new teachers on the induction year and a forum for new entrants.
Beyond the personal benefits are the potential advantages of belonging to a politically effective union offering national representation, and possible influence over education policy.
The cost of membership for NQTs varies little from union to union. The ATL has a two-year subscription offer whereby the first term is free (autumn 1998), the first year of membership costs Pounds 45 (January - December 1999) and the second year, half the subscription rate in force. If you apply by October 31 this year, your first year will cost Pounds 35.
The NUT offers the first term of membership free, and the following two years at half price, currently Pounds 49 per year. The NASUWT also offers the first term free and the subsequent two years at half price (Pounds 46.68 a year). The PAT also offers the first term free, the first year at less than half price (Pounds 45) and the second year at a reduced rate.
Union services are delivered on a variety of levels. Representatives within schools are usually the first port of call, moving on to regional level if necessary. Only in extreme situations will a case go to national level.
But many teachers who ask for help say they come up against the brick wall protecting the union's relationship with the local education authority and school.
Jenni Watson, national secretary of Redress, the Bullied Teacher's Support Network, believes some union members don't get the help they pay for or expect. "Lower officials are often forced into the mould of expediency and don't always challenge breaches of education law." In effect, she says, this makes the union judge, jury and executioner, rather than defender of its member, sometimes giving the advice to settle, resign or back out of a dispute.
She believes many union reps fail to focus on detail, knowledge and confidence. "They prefer to work for 'the greater good of all teachers', which causes the teacher to feel isolated and rejected."
David Anderson (not his real name) needed union representation after a breach of contract. He had expected his union to support him, but soon became aware that an education personnel officer of his local authority was intimidating the union officer advising him. He then appealed to the union's general secretary to take up the case, but this was refused on the grounds that Mr Anderson had gone against union advice - he had arranged for his own legal representation when, nine days before a hearing, the union had still failed to provide access to a solicitor. The case is yet to reach a resolution and the personal cost to Mr Anderson amounts to Pounds 35,000.
Olivia Tester (not her real name) was also frustrated by her union's efforts after she was bullied by two teachers in her independent school. The union advised her to leave rather than fight for re-dress. She says officers lost paperwork and the way she was treated left her feeling afraid to contact them. She had a nervous breakdown. Four years after the bullying began, she is considering returning to work, having taken her case to a barrister independently.
These experiences are not representative; union membership is still strongly recommended. But be aware of the possible pitfalls and question the union you are thinking of joining. Find out if there are any catches or conditions placed on the support you may receive. New teachers are the prize that unions covet. Don't be wooed by free gifts and discounts, but rather by satisfactory (written) answers to these questions.
* If I am involved in a disciplinary matter will the union supply a legally qualified representative to defend me?
* Will the union ensure that any case in which I am involved will be passed on to a suitably qualified person at an appropriate stage - that is,not struggle at local level?
* What responsibility does the union take for the advice it gives?
* If I choose not to follow the union's advice or want a second opinion, will it still represent me?
A final point. Although union membership does give you professional insurance, you should also arrange your own. Make sure you can choose your legal representative, as it is critical that an education law specialist advises you.
NUT: 0171 380 4781
NASUWT: 0121 453 6150
ATL: 0171 930 6441
PAT: 01332 372 337
TEN THINGS UNIONS DO FOR THEIR MEMBERS
* Give advice when members have a problem at work.
* Represent members in discussion with employers.
* Help improve wages and conditions.
* Make sure that members' legal rights are enforced at work.
* Help members to take cases to employment tribunals - and courts if necessary.
* Fight discrimination and help promote equal opportunities at work.
* Support members who act as volunteer representatives in schools.
* Provide education and training courses for workplace reps.
* Provide services for individual members, such as welfare benefits, personal legal help, financial services and discounts on insurance.
* Lobby the Government and others in support of policies and laws that help people at work.