Which union for you?

11th November 2005 at 00:00
It's not compulsory, but it is advisable to join. Jon Slater helps you decide which one best suits your needs

In the old days it was easy. If you were a new teacher you joined the National Union of Teachers. Posh people might prefer the Assistant Masters or Assistant Mistresses Association. Male chauvinists might opt for the National Association of Schoolmasters while bra-burners could chose the Union of Women Teachers.

But there was no doubt which union was boss. The NUT spoke for the profession; the rest were splinter groups.

How things have changed.

The NUT is still - just - the largest union, but newly qualified teachers have a choice. The NUT, NASUWT and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers all have more than 120,000 fee-paying members and all offer comprehensive insurance cover and legal services if you are injured at work, are in dispute with your employer, or face malicious allegations from pupils. Arthur Jarman, the NUT's assistant secretary for membership, claims its history of dominance gives it an advantage. "We are the only organisation with regional offices in every area and solicitors in those offices," he says. Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?

But even he admits the others are catching up. Indeed, the NASUWT, the second largest union, has overtaken the NUT in Wales and some parts of England, and it is the only union that represents teachers in each of the four countries of the UK.

Where one union is dominant in a school or area, teachers can feel more comfortable belonging to the same organisation as their colleagues.

Otherwise it is the unions' policies that are likely to influence their choice.

In the 1980s, the future ATL gained a significant boost from teachers unwilling to become involved in industrial action.

Even NUT leaders admit privately that Nigel de Gruchy, as NASUWT general secretary, stole a march during the 1990s by highlighting the impact of poor behaviour on teachers' lives - something Chris Keates, today's NASUWT boss, has continued to shout about.

Cynics have characterised the NUT as full of unreconstructed Trots and the NASUWT as run by up-tight control freaks. The ATL's avoidance of industrial action, has given it the image of genteel teachers unwilling to say "Boo"

to the Government.

The smaller Professional Association of Teachers is the eccentric of the family. This year it hit the headlines when Liz Beattie, a retired teacher from Ipswich, speaking as a delegate at the annual conference, argued failure in exams should be referred to as "deferred success".

It is only a few years ago that the creation of a single teaching union appeared possible. A new generation of general secretaries, it seemed, was open to the idea. The unions were involved in joint workload talks with the Government. Despite a grain of truth in the caricatures of all three major unions, the policy differences did not appear great. They seemed ready to put differences to one side and unite the profession.

All that changed when the NUT rejected workforce reform. The NASUWT, ATL and the much smaller PAT all accepted the Government's offer of 10 per cent non-contact time. But the NUT refused to allow support staff to classes. So it has been frozen out of the subsequent social partnership between unions and the Government.

Cameraderie disintegrated into rancour and ministers boycotted the NUT's annual conference. But, almost three years on, and despite the election of the more conciliatory Steve Sinnott as NUT general secretary and the decision of the National Association of Head Teachers to walk out of the agreement, the wounds have not healed. Only a joint statement calling on the Government to scrap primary league tables hints at a return to co-operation.

The NUT accuses the NASUWT, in particular, of putting its relationship with the Government before the needs of teachers. NASUWT leaders counter that they achieve more by quiet work on the inside than by shouting to the press.

Meanwhile the ATL stresses the research credentials of its general secretary, Mary Bousted, a former academic. Spokesmen wring their hands at the stubborness of the big two.

Ready to join a union? Take your pick.

Steve Sinott: leads the biggest union

NUT

Members

273,005

Qualified teachers and heads only. Very popular in primary schools

pound;65 per year

What sort of people?

Cost for NQTs

Full cost

pound;130

What it says:

"We believe if you pay little you get little. We are the only teachers' union in the UK which exclusively recruits qualified teachers."

Key campaign

Only teachers should take classes

Embarassed by

1995 annual conference when David Blunkett was chased into a cupboard by angry delegates.

Must-have accessory

1'The Socialist Worker'

Most likely to say to Ruth Kelly

2"Are you talking to us now?"

NASUWT

Chris Keates: hot on behaviour

Members

236,005

What sort of people?

Qualified teachers, heads, assistants

Cost for NQTs

Free (second year half price)

Full cost

pound;130

What it says:

"We're delivering real improvements by engaging in social partnership and constructive dialogue with the Government."

Key campaign

Tackling bad behaviour in the classroom

Embarassed by

Nigel de Gruchy implying classroom assistants were "pig- ignorant peasants".

Must-have accessory

1 Beard and a pint of real ale

Most likely to say to Ruth Kelly

2"We should discuss that through social partnership (without the NUT)."

ATL

Mary Bousted: former academic Members

122,813

What sort of people?

Anyone directly involved in education, from early years through to further education.

Cost for NQTs

Free (second year is charged at half price)

Full cost

pound;64.75 (half-price offer at the moment)

What it says:

"We are not afraid to campaign outside the social partnership remit, for example, ATL is completely resistant to any changes."

Key campaign

Protecting teachers' pensions

Embarassed by

Declining membership as those who joined during 1980s industrial action retire .

Must-have accessory

1 Sensible shoes

Most likely to say to Ruth Kelly

2"That's not what the research shows."

PAT

Jean Gemmell: no-strike rule

Members

34,104

What sort of people?

Members come from every sector of education. Particularly popular among nursery nurses.

Cost for NQTs

pound;50 (per year for first two years)

Full cost

pound;140

What it says:

"We have a no strike rule. We are not TUC- affliated so we are not in the command of the TUC. "

Key campaign

National pay scales for support staff

Embarassed by

Not easily embarassed

Must-have accessory

1 Bus pass

Most likely to say to Ruth Kelly

2 "Thank you for talking to us."

SCOTLAND AND WALES

Teachers here can join one of their own unions, rather than the four English ones. In Wales, UCAC, the Welsh language union, has 4,000 members.

It describes itself as "the only union that looks at the education world through 'Welsh' eyes and who forms all its main policies for the benefit of Wales". Membership costs pound;39 for NQTs (full rate pound;120).

The NUT does not operate in Scotland, where the Educational Institute of Scotland (EiS) dominates. Membership is free for the first 14 months and costs between pound;106-pound;116 per year thereafter, depending on the region. EiS, which historically has had close relations with the NUT, has 55,000 members from nursery to higher education - 80 per cent of teachers in Scotland.

The union was instrumental in negotiating the 2001 McCrone deal, a forerunner of the workforce agreement in England, which delivered a 35-hour week and a 23 per cent pay increase by 2004.

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