Subject bodies struggling to attract members

5th December 2008 at 00:00
Many well-respected and effective teaching associations, some dating from the Victorian era, have begun lobbying to bolster their numbers

They are among the most venerable institutions on the education scene, some with histories dating back to the Victorian era.

They all run annual conferences designed to showcase some of the most imaginative, thought provoking and effective teaching around. But for most of England's subject associations, recent years have been a struggle.

Now a TES analysis of the associations' latest accounts has confirmed that many of these well- respected institutions have seen a slump in membership over the past five years.

Several say this fall has been halted. But the accounts still make sobering reading for their management and supporters.

There is no immediate sign of a threat to the associations' survival. But several have had to change some of their operations - including, in at least one case, reducing staff - to cut costs.

The largest annual fall in membership reported in the accounts, which the associations have to file with the Charities Commission, was seen at the Association for Language Learning. In 2007, individual membership fell by 14 per cent, from 2,374 to 2,043. Group membership, where an entire teaching department joins the organisation, slumped 16 per cent, from 337 to 282.

At the Geographical Association, the news was not much better. Membership was down 8 per cent from 2007, from 6,795 to 6,295 members. This was the seventh successive annual reduction and means the association 's membership is roughly half its 1996 peak of 12,000.

Not all associations publish membership numbers in their accounts. The National Association for the Teaching of English (Nate) does not, but admitted to a fall of 2,000 over the past 10 years, to around 3,000 now. Nate argues, however, that many of its memberships are entire departments, who count as a single entry in the figures, meaning the true number of members will be higher.

A comment in its 2006 accounts says that "at a time of a national decline in membership of all subject associations, Nate officers worked hard to advertise the benefits of membership and keep costs down".

The Mathematical Association's accounts report a deficit for 2007 of Pounds 113,093. It says that falling membership, reduced professional development funding and significant loss on the annual conference all contributed to the situation, even though reduced staffing levels were implemented during 2007.

Even the largest of the subject bodies, the Association for Science Education, which at 14,000 members is a behemoth in the field, saw numbers slide by nearly 2,000, or 12 per cent, from 2003 to 2007.

Explanations for these trends vary. Some are subject specific. David Lambert, chief executive of the Geographical Association, said that the most obvious reason for its numbers shrinking was that primary geography had been effectively downgraded from its position as one of eight equally important national curriculum subjects in the early 1990s to being seen by the Government as less important than English, maths and science from the late 1990s onwards. Primary membership had fallen fast.

But he added that there were other reasons. He said: "What has happened, especially since the mid-1990s, is that the policy thrust has been on (generic) teaching skill and pedagogy. This has shifted the balance of teachers' focus away from their subject and towards these more general pedagogic issues.

"The question is, where is subject engagement among the plethora of worries that the teacher has? It is fairly low down the list. I regret that.

"I would be the last person to say that matters of pedagogy and attainment are not important. But what you decide to teach is extremely important. I don't think there's enough focus on that now."

At the Association for Language Learning, the clear trigger for falling numbers has been the precipitous drop in pupils taking languages to 16 since the Government made them optional in 2004.

GCSE candidate numbers for German have halved since 1999, and for French have fallen 41 per cent since then. The association does not have figures for the total number of language teachers, but believes they are declining.

Linda Parker is director of the association, which was formed in 1990 to bring together several smaller bodies.

She said: "One reason why our associations were particularly strong in the 1970s and 1980s was that teachers saw themselves as independent practitioners: they had this sense of their own professionalism.

"Since then, education has become more top-down. In some ways, that has been a good thing, but in other ways it means that teachers do not see themselves as individual professionals as they did in the past." Hence they might see less of a need to join professional associations.

Ian McNeilly, Nate's director, said the advent of the national strategies, which have been providing lesson-by-lesson teaching guidance focusing on literacy in English since 1998, partly explained the declining figures. "Since the inception of the national strategies, some English teachers have been encouraged to embrace them rather than the much wider professional ethos that is sometimes critical, and which they will get in the subject communities," he said.

Teacher recruitment and retention analyst John Howson said demographic factors may also be at play. With many teachers having reached or nearing the end of their careers, he said some would simply cease being members of the associations. The internet meant teachers also no longer needed to go to the associations for many resources.

The effect on the organisations' financial futures is harder to evaluate, as typically they do not rely solely on subscriptions for funding, with income from publishing and work on Government projects tending to offset any losses. Most of the associations have plans to try to turn around their fortunes. Both the Association for Language Learning and Nate are reporting that unpublished figures for this year show an improvement in membership, while Professor Lambert said the mood at the Geographical Association was "buoyant", with it having returned a surplus for the past six years.

With the Government seemingly committed to enhancing teachers' professional skills through, for example, encouring new teachers to take a masters degree profession, the associations believe there is great potential to improve their fortunes. But they have a tough fight.

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- National Association for the Teaching of English

Membership: 3,000 (2008)

Teacher numbers: 32,800

- English Association

Membership: 3,000 (2008)

Teacher numbers: 32,800

- Association for Language Learning

Membership: 2,043 (2007)

Teacher numbers (French): 14,900

- Association for Science Education

Membership: 14,000 (2007)

Teacher numbers: 32,100

- Mathematical Association

Membership: 3,500 (2007)

Teacher numbers: 30,800

- Association of Teachers of Mathematics

Membership: 3,500 (2007)

Teacher numbers: 30,800

- NAACE (for information and communications technology teachers)

Membership: 2,500 (2008)

Teacher numbers: 18,000

- Design and Technology Association

Membership: 5,900

Teacher numbers: 35,700

- Association for Physical Education

Membership: 3,000 (2008)

Teacher numbers: 21,700

- Historical Association

Membership: 3,714* (2007)

Teacher numbers: 15,700

- Geographical Association

Membership: 6,295 (2008)

Teacher numbers: 15,300

- Royal Geographical Society

Membership: 850**

Teacher numbers: 15,300.

*This is the figure for history teachers. The association's total membership, including university-based historians, was 5,776 in 2007.

** Denotes school members of the society. Total membership is 15,000, of which many are university geographers and members of the public

(Teacher numbers denote numbers qualified to teach that subject in secondary schools. Source: DCSF staffing survey 2007).

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