Belonging to a union brings obvious benefits: support, security and sound advice. For many teachers, joining is a rite of passage and part of their professional identity, which explains why teaching has one of the highest union membership rates of any profession, at about 95 per cent. But there is a growing perception in some schools - new academies in particular - that union membership is now frowned upon.
"We have seen an increasing number of cases where heads have discriminated against our members or even tried to discourage them from remaining in the union," says NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates.
She believes anti-union comments from the Government are partly to blame - for example, schools minister Lord Hill's suggestion that applications for academy status might be viewed more favourably if schools choose not to recognise the unions.
"That attitude filters down," she says. "Heads are less afraid to take an anti-union stance because they think the Government will back them."
But teachers' rights are very clear. As a member of the profession you are free to join a union, and if anyone tries to stop you they are breaking the law. Heads know this - though it may not stop them offering a "suggestion" on the matter.
One teacher, whose first job was in the independent sector, recalls the head taking him to one side and asking him if he had signed up with a union. "When I said I hadn't, he tapped me on the arm and said I should 'keep it that way'," he says.
Faced with this kind of scenario, you should report the matter to union officials, says NUT Lambeth branch secretary Sara Tomlinson. "The only heads who would oppose union membership are bullies who have something to fear," she says.
If your head or principal is clearly anti-union, do you risk stalling your career if you sign up? As a rank-and-file member, probably not. After all, there are few schools where belonging to a union would put you in anything other than the large majority. And if you teach in a school where management styles are abrasive, you may find your subscription fee is money well spent.
"If your employer refuses to recognise agreements on pay, for example," says John Dixon, head of the NUT's membership department, "then it becomes more likely that you will need advice or support on that issue from your union."
Of course, if you choose to be active in the union, or to become a representative, you have to accept that you may fall out with management.
Chris Keates says that most cases of conflict or discrimination arise when schools are seeking academy status. If union reps are forthright in resisting this, there is a risk of ill-feeling on one side or the other whatever the outcome.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
- Under the Human Rights Act you cannot be forbidden from joining a union; nor you can you be forced to join one.
- If you get a job at an academy that sets its own pay and conditions, take advice from your union before signing a contract.
- If a school converts to an academy, it must respect the pay and conditions of existing staff under Tupe (Transfer of Undertakings) law. It must also recognise the main teaching unions.