You'll miss us if we perish, warn subject associations

20th January 2012 at 00:00
Loss of funds and lack of support leave them fighting for survival

They see themselves as the Big Society in action - teachers working together to help each other improve standards.

Such subject associations should be enjoying their day in the sun. They are in tune with the government's big idea and, with the bonfire of education quangos and local authority budgets stretched to the limit, there is a huge gap in teacher training and support for them to fill.

But the associations are facing one of the bleakest periods in their long history. Staff numbers are being slashed by up to 60 per cent, income is falling by as much as 90 per cent and membership is down. Some are warning that their very existence is under threat.

John Steers, chair of trustees at the Council for Subject Associations (CfSA), which represents 32 of the organisations, warned that all were facing problems. "For the majority, the current situation is not sustainable beyond the short term," he said.

The root cause is spending cuts. Subject associations may be needed more than ever as the increasing number of academies erodes the capacity of local authorities to support teachers, but the public sector squeeze has hit them from two directions.

Contracts they once had with now-defunct quangos such as the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency and Becta are gone. So, too, are even more valuable grants from central government to help train teachers.

Meanwhile, cuts in school training budgets mean many teachers can no longer attend the courses or access the services that subject associations offer.

A survey carried out by the CfSA last year found that the vast majority of associations were struggling. One feared members would "not renew, given job insecurity", another reported a "drastic reduction" in income and a third association warned of its membership falling by a third and said that in a "couple of years" it "probably won't exist in the form it does now".

The Labour government made an effort to give a bigger role to subject associations from 2003 and, in 2007, set up the CfSA to improve their standing. The coalition's 2010 schools white paper also talked about the need for subject associations to "bring together teachers".

But Ian McNeilly, director of the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE), believes that, while the government is happy to invite subject associations to contribute, it is not doing enough to help them. "Michael Gove has scrapped the General Teaching Council for England, but surely he wants teachers to belong to a professional body," said Mr McNeilly. "We were the Big Society before David Cameron was a twinkle in pater's eye."

NATE has recently lost two from a staff of seven. Mr McNeilly said that despite their "national" titles and long histories, the associations are "small charities supported mainly by volunteers".

Dr Steers believes ministers interested in increasing teaching standards are missing a trick. "Teachers are more likely to accept training and advice from subject associations because they see them as their organisations," he said.

He met DfE officials last year to express concern about a lack of recognition of subject associations' role and the impact of government policies. "This seemed to come as a surprise and it was suggested that the apparent neglect was unintentional and a consequence of being in a 'transitional period'," said Dr Steers.

The DfE said this week that it was "right" that subject associations competed with other organisations for contracts and grants.

Things have just got even worse following the delay in the implementation of a new national curriculum. Sue Wilkinson, Association for Physical Education strategic lead, said the organisation had contributed much of its resources (see box, page 22) to the national curriculum review. It will now have to wait 12 months longer to earn back any income from training teachers in it.

Ministers may not be able to come to subject associations' financial aid, but Mr McNeilly does think they could encourage more teachers to join. "Some kind of government endorsement of subject associations would have a huge positive impact," he said. "A further decline in membership may mean the next time the DfE asks for free, expert help, some associations won't be there to answer the call."


The Association for Physical Education has seen a recent increase in its membership. But the loss of work worth #163;500,000 a year - more than half its annual income - has forced it to cut staff numbers from 13 to five in the past two years.

Sue Wilkinson, the association's strategic lead, said its long-term existence was threatened. Yet its members need it more than ever.

"There have been so many initiatives and consultations we have to respond to, but we have no way of raising the money to do so," said Ms Wilkinson.

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