Unions get their funding from teachers. Teachers are their clients - pupils are not. So even if the unions argue that they are "standing up for standards" when teachers go on strike and close two-thirds of schools, critics like Michael Gove are quick to argue that "militants itching for a fight" are unnecessarily punishing parents and pupils out of destructive self-interest. But are recent strikes and persistently high rates of union membership among teachers really evidence of defensive self-interest? Given that only 40 per cent of teachers turned out in the NUT and NASUWT's ballots for strike action, it may be that teachers are beginning to want something rather different from their unions.
In a new series of videos by consultancy LKMco, teachers discuss their reasons for joining a union. Several describe their desire for representation on broad policy issues as well as information to support their professional development.
This shows parallels to what Susan Moore Johnson of Harvard University has described as "reform unionism". Academics Julia Koppich and Mary Callahan summarise the difference between reform and more traditional or "industrial" forms of unionism by saying that industrial unionism has limited scope, is focused on protection of individual interests and is carried out in an adversarial style. It is often focused on maintaining standardised, national, non-performance-related pay and condition agreements. In contrast, reform (or professional) unionism is broader and focused on teachers and teaching as a whole. It blurs distinctions between labour and management and is carried out more collaboratively. Reform unionism might, therefore, place greater emphasis on issues such as professional development.
Sam Woodard, head of design and technology in a London secondary school, is one teacher who shows some reformist tendencies. She argues that it is important for unions to provide representation on broad education issues. "The unions play a very important role in the negotiation between policies ... and the people who are working in education," she says. This is crucial given that "a lot of policies regarding education are made by people who don't necessarily know about education."
Liam Collins chose his first union based on who had the "best reputation for representation". It is a priority that is not lost on Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. "We attach great importance to ensuring that what we say represents the views of members," he says.
Elements of reformism and professional unionism have long been part of unions' work. When Collins moved into senior management, one of the reasons he switched to the ASCL was because the information on leadership and management research that it provided was useful for his professional development.
Unions have also campaigned on broad issues such as the curriculum. Yet high-profile battles tend to be more industrial. It may be that victories in fights over standardised national pay scales and workforce agreements have led teachers to feel less defensive and more open to reform. But unions still have some way to go if they are to share members' "professionalist" tendencies.
Garth Stahl, who teaches in London, says: "I don't get much else (aside from protection) from my union in terms of professional development, apart from a couple of mailings that are filled with pretty insignificant information." That said, it may be that the rise of academies and free schools threatens standardisation sufficiently to push teachers back into defensive industrialism.
Controversies like these are being explored in a consultation on perceptions of teaching unions by LKMco, funded by Edapt. Tell us what you think. Teachers and heads are encouraged to contribute their views through an online survey (https:www.surveymonkey.comsTeachingUnions). The consultation is part of a study of perceptions of teaching unions that will be published in May.
Loic Menzies is director of LKM Consulting.