Dear Ted

30th April 2004 at 01:00
Ted Wragg, emeritus professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own

I'm a trainee teacher starting a job in September so I intend to join a union. How do I decide which one is best for me? Is it just a case of different levels of militancy?

Ted says

The teaching unions are proud of their history and traditions, so you need to find out from each of their websites what these are and decide which style appeals to you most. I would certainly advise you to join now, as a student, rather than wait. Membership is usually free, and you may need the protection and support it can offer.

As you have a job for September, find out what union other teachers in the school belong to, as this may affect your decision. You can still make up your own mind, but the school, or the area, may have a particularly active local union branch or representative, which might appeal to you.

Although "militancy" is the feature that receives most press coverage, strike action is rare nowadays and most union business is about supporting members.

Find out what each of the unions will do for you. Some offer loans or mortgages, or arrange courses on topics such as class management. All say they will give support when you need it: for example, if you are in some kind of difficulty, threatened with redundancy or accused of incompetence.

Contrary to popular belief, unions do not merely make excuses for members who have not fulfilled their duties. They insist on proper procedures being followed, on the teacher having a fair hearing and on their being given appropriate support. But they will, if necessary, help negotiate a dignified exit.

A good local branch will also arrange events of interest to members and offer career advice. Most unions hold national and regional conferences, and while press coverage concentrates on dissent, most conference events are discussions on matters of concern (with the odd mind-numbing event thrown in).

You say

Find out which is right for you

Joining a union should not just be a consumerist decision, based on the goodies on offer from each one, so don't be seduced by special offers and the peripherals on display. It is a matter of principle and you should attempt to join the one that is in most alignment with your own views on education, trade union rights and associated underlying values.

Visit their websites. Which one do you connect with most naturally? If you find yourself nodding in agreement at one more than the others, that's the one for you. Joining a union is a big step and you do well to set aside time to think about which one to select.

I Hayward, Brighton

Shop around for the best fit

The high level of available professional support makes union membership a great asset, particularly when you are starting out.

Think about the reasons you went into teaching, then find the union that best reflects these. Look up their websites, send for their material and check through their constitutions carefully. Talk to teachers you know to discover their experiences. If professional support is especially important to you, check to see what each union can provide and sound out the local representatives to see how efficient they are. In a crisis, you need a quick response. The financial aspect can be important, too - the subscription fees differ, and some unions offer competitive financial services.

Angela Pollard, Rugby

National Union of Teachers: www.teachers.org.ukNational Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers: www.teachersunion.org.ukAssociation of Teachers and Lecturers: www.askatatl.org.ukProfessional Association of Teachers: www.pat.org.ukScottish Secondary Teachers' Association: www.ssta.org.uk

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