NUT and ATL: Two of Britain's biggest teaching unions discuss creating a 'superunion'

Both the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers believe it will strengthen their voice in discussions with ministers

Richard Garner
Tuesday 07 April 2015 06:15 BST

The country’s most militant teaching union is in talks with a more moderate rival with a view to creating a new “superunion” for the profession.

Officials at both the 330,000-strong National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), which boasts 170,000 members, believe such a move will give the profession a stronger voice in future discussions with ministers.

A marriage between the two would create the fourth-largest union in the UK – behind Unite, Unison and the GMB.

Both unions talked about the idea of a merger in private sessions at their conferences over the Easter fortnight.

At first sight, the two unions might seem unlikely bedfellows – the ATL has a reputation as the most moderate of the three big teachers’ unions (there was no mention of strike action at its annual conference last week in Liverpool) and has more members in the private sector of education than other teaching unions. In contrast, delegates at the NUT conference have called for strikes over spending cuts and a boycott of new baseline tests for four-year-olds at their annual conference in Harrogate.

However, their policies on education are almost indistinguishable – with both concerned about the rise in free schools and academies and the potential for corruption because of a lack of scrutiny.

The NUT has a long-standing commitment to creating one united union for the teaching profession – but for years has made little headway in pursuing this policy.

One of the factors that has changed the atmosphere, though, is the prospect of difficult years for education ahead, with organisations such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies warning that whichever party comes to power as a result of the election there will be cuts of up to 12 per cent in education spending.

TUC officials have long thought it an anomaly that there are three affiliated unions representing teachers – the third is the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, whose leadership is opposed to merging with the others.

At present, the two are discussing “joint working” arrangements but, if there was an eventual merger, it could add a moderating influence on the stances adopted by the NUT at its conference.

Members of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) take part in a rally during a one-day walkout by teachers across England and Wales in March last year

Any new union would likely to take less frequent – but more effective – industrial action, given the size of the combined membership.

The ATL did take strike action over pensions when the Coalition Government decided to increase contributions and cut pensions earlier in this Parliament.

Both unions talked about the idea of working in joint collaboration in private sessions at their conferences over the Easter fortnight. Peter Pendle, deputy general secretary of the ATL, also addressed the NUT conference.

Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, said it “has long held a policy of professional unity and continues to seek discussions with all fellow teacher unions prepared to discuss this important issue”.

She added: “We have worked very closely with ATL and other unions in recent talks with Government and continue to believe that a single teachers’ union is in the interests of the profession.”

Meanwhile yesterday, NUT delegates unanimously backed a motion warning of strike action in the autumn term if the incoming government did not reverse plans for cuts in education spending in its Autumn Statement.

The union resolved that failure to do so would be the “trigger” for a ballot of the membership on strike action.

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