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3rd September 2004 at 01:00
Unions vying for new members are luring trainees with discounts and pencil cases. William Stewart reports

From extendable "pointer pens" to discounted membership of the Ramblers Association, new teachers face a tempting array of offers when deciding which union they should join.

In England and Wales five unions are vying for their membership. All offer a broadly similar range of services including professional advice, legal protection and support and insurance.

So how do teachers decide which one to go for? Well they could consider the freebies.

The National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers run seminars where new teachers can pick up valuable advice for their first year.

But there are other goodies on offer. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers offers new teachers a "starter pack filled with essential items for their first job in the classroom".

No, not electric cattle prods and automated marking machines, but sticky notes, a guide for new teachers, the aforementioned pointer pens, and even a ruler.

The Professional Association of Teachers makes a bid for lovers of the outdoors with its Ramblers Association offer, worth pound;4 off a single pound;20 membership, while the NUT refers to its "excellent pocket diary" and wall planners.

UCAC, the Welsh-speaking teachers' union, also offers diaries as well as pencil cases and writing pads. Flashing mobile-phone holders, pens, yo-yos and coasters are sometimes distributed locally by the NASUWT.

New teachers may also want to consider each union's distinctive culture and character. The NUT, the largest with 267,671 fee-paying members, has traditionally been the most militant while its nearest rival the NASUWT has attracted its 223,486 fee-paying members through a no-nonsense approach to pupil behaviour.

The ATL with 119,261 fee-paying members is known for its conservative with a small "c" approach, though with a falling, elderly membership there are moves to try to portray a more dynamic image.

PAT, by far the smallest of England's four classroom unions with 34,578 members, makes a virtue of its no-industrial action stance.

But the truth is that apart from a hard core of committed activists, most members will neither experience, or possibly even care about, these differences.

Strength in numbers will sway some new teachers who will join the union that is strongest in their school. But for others price could be the bottom line.

The big two offer virtually identical packages with free membership for the first term, and half-price fees for the following two years of pound;62.50 for the NUT and pound;62 for the NASUWT.

PAT also offers free first term membership, after which full fees of pound;130 kick in. At the moment the ATL is the cheapest with free membership for the first year of teaching, and a half-price rate of pound;62.25 for the second.

UCAC offers new teachers their first term of teaching free and the next full year for pound;39 before they pay the full rate of pound;117.

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