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

27th 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.

Subject associations south of the border should be enjoying their day in the sun. 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 they are facing one of the bleakest periods in their 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 of them were facing problems. "For the majority, the current situation is not sustainable beyond the short term," he said.

Subject associations might be needed more than ever as the growing number of academies eroded the capacity of local authorities to support teachers - but the public sector squeeze had hit them from two directions.

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

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

In a survey carried out by the CfSA last year, one respondent 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 sought 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," Mr McNeilly said.

Dr Steers believes ministers interested in raising 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.

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

Ministers may not be able to come to subject associations' financial aid, but Mr McNeilly thinks some kind of government endorsement would have a positive impact. "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," he said.

Under threat

The delay in the implementation of a new national curriculum has made matters worse.

Sue Wilkinson, who takes the strategic lead for the Association for Physical Education, said it had contributed much of its resources to the national curriculum review but will now have to wait 12 months longer to earn back any income from training teachers in it.

The association has recently seen an increase in its membership. But the loss of work worth pound;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.

"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," Ms Wilkinson said.

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