Students teachers have no qualms over changing unions according to what they offer. And one of the factors behind their choice is numbers. Anat Arkin reports.
Newly qualified teachers are benefiting from the stiff competition between the four unions representing teachers in England and Wales. In their efforts to attract new members, all the unions are offering the profession's newcomers a range of services and perks, including free membership for student teachers and NQTs in their first few months on the job, and reduced subscription fees in their first two years of teaching.
All four unions also produce glossy booklets, factsheets and newsletters filled with practical advice on job applications and coping with induction for newly qualified teachers.
Over and above these basic benefits, the unions constantly try to out-do their rivals by developing additional services. The National Union of Teachers (NUT), for example, backs its literature for NQTs with a website which last year won a TUC award for the best union Internet site. As well as giving information about finding a first job, the site provides a model letter of application for job seekers to customise, print and send to schools where they hope to teach.
However, the NASUWT goes one better by offering a free job-finding service. Operated by Start, a teacher recruitment agency, this allows NASUWT members to enter their details on a national database that is distributed to schools looking to appoint newly qualified teachers.
The NASUWT has also got together with the National Union of Students (NUS) to provide students on teaching practice with the same kind of legal and professional cover that qualified teachers receive through their unions. This ensures that students are legally represented if, for example, a child they are teaching has an accident or if they face allegations concerning their conduct in relation to children. Available since last September, the service is free to all NUS members, even if they do not belong to the NASUWT.
"The NUS and ourselves shared a common concern that some students were going into schools without legal and professional cover because they were unaware of the risks they faced in taking responsibility for large groups of children," says NASUWT assistant secretary Barry Gandy.
Two of the other teacher unions offer courses and seminars where NQTs can share their induction experiences with others in a similar position, and develop strategies for dealing with the stresses and strains of the job.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) recently held a one-day seminar that included sessions on the legal background to dealing with parents and on the implications of the Government's Green Paper on the future of the teaching profession. Two further seminars are planned for next year.
The NUT runs a similar three-day course for new teachers at its training centre at Stoke Rochford, near Grantham. This is designed to help newly qualified teachers overcome the difficulties they inevitably face in their first year of teaching and look at ways of promoting their career development. Like the ATL's seminars for newly qualified teachers, the Stoke Rochford course is free, with the union picking up the tab for members' travelling costs.
In addition to services targeted at student teachers and NQTs, the unions tryto attract new members by stressing their political stance - or lack of one.
A spokesman for the Professional Association of Teachers (PAT), which boasts that it is the only independent teachers' union, outlines the organisation's position: "It is not affiliated to the TUC or any political party and has a no-strike policy. It is dedicated to the promotion of teaching as a profession and is unique in its team approach, welcoming teachers, heads, deputy heads, classroom assistants and other support staff."
But PAT is not the only union which presents itself as "non-political" - although affiliated to the TUC, the ATL also projects this view and stresses that members are never told to follow any particular line of action.
By contrast, the NUT portrays itself as a campaigning union. "It is the union that has consistently and persistently campaigned against payment by results, and which also provides benefits and services second to none," says assistant secretary Arthur Jarman. He also points out that with 201,000 in-service members, the NUT is the largest teacher union.
Like its much larger rival, PAT tries to convince would-be members that size, and namely a smaller size, matters.
The union's publicity materials say: "PAT isn't the largest union for teachers and childcarers, but our smaller size means we can offer a more personal service to our members and have more time for their individual needs."
PAT also claims that with around 35,000 members, it is large enough to make its voice heard at national level.
When Matthew Partineton took up his first teaching job last September, he joined NASUWT, the dominant union at the school where he was working on a temporary one-term contract. But he switched to the NUT after hearing about the union's three-day course for new teachers. "That was very useful because they gave us lots of practical advice on managing our workload and on how to handle ourselves in our first year of teaching," he says.
Now teaching history and religious education at a Leeds comprehensive, Matthew is thinking of going back to NASUWT, not because he is unhappy with the NUT but because NASUWT is better represented at his present school. "If you are faced with a difficult situation, you need the strongest union to be on your side," he says.
Unlike Matthew Partineton, Melanie Dove, an English teacher in Nuneaton, says she was not influenced by colleagues when it came to deciding which union to join.
In common with many student teachers, Melanie had registered with all the unions when she began her training. But on getting her first job, she decided to stick with the ATL, which had supplied her with information and kept in closer touch than the other unions while she was training. She was especially impressed with the ATL's literature on applying for jobs and attending interviews.
"It was my experience as a student that persuaded me to join ATL - the fact that they had been in touch and that their material was so useful," she says. "I thought that if they are this useful when I'm a student, they are going to be pretty good once I become a professional."