Teachers and their unions

4th September 2012

Key Findings

  • The most important reason teachers join unions is for support and protection. Collective voice and bargaining are also important. Information on pedagogy, policy and the right to industrial action are less important.
  • Levels of satisfaction are very high (including overall satisfaction, satisfaction with support received and with head teachers’ interactions).
  • Teachers gave powerful accounts of the impact of union support during very challenging circumstances.
  • Satisfaction was less high with the way unions raise the professional status of teachers, campaign on education and with their impact on improving education.
  • Many teachers would consider an alternative to union membership.
  • Frustration with government policies and varying attitudes to industrial action are polarising teachers’ views – many becoming more positive, many less positive.

At present politicians behave as thought they can dismiss the views of unions as being those of a vocal minority unrepresentative of their members, but if the voice of the unions really is the voice of hundreds of thousands of teachers, policy makers may need to sit up and take notice. On the other hand, what if teachers’ allegiance to unions is weak? Unions might then be left wondering ‘where does that leave pay bargaining?’ or, ‘what if people dislike militancy? Should we stop striking?’ Such findings might throw much into question, but if true, they would need to be confronted. Unions and politicians cannot live in a bubble, ignoring the elephant in the room because they are afraid to ask these important questions.

So far these difficult questions have rarely been asked of teachers, perhaps because there is a scary potential for rebuke. This report is an opportunity to bypass political distortions and to actually ask teachers what they think.  What are the thoughts, feelings and values behind their decisions to join, stay or leave a trade union? Within that membership what are the things that they enjoy, value, dislike or even disregard?  Asking teachers to speak honestly about their union experiences affords a middle ground in the debate, and is what we hoped to achieve in this research.

Beautifully printed copies of the full 96 page report are available from Amazon, or you can read the introduction and executive summary here. You can access a Dropbox folder containing the full report, survey data and interview transcripts using this link. You can also view a presentation to the British Educational Research Association (BERA) conference about the report.

Press release

Coalition policies and industrial action polarising teachers’ views on their unions, shows new LKMco research.

As voting closes in an industrial action ballot by the National Union Teachers, new


evidence shows that recent events are polarising teachers’ views on unions. Nearly half of teachers surveyed by LKMco, a Cambridge based Education ‘think-and-action tank’, said their views on unions had changed over the course of the last year. Around half of these teachers developed more positive views whilst half became more negative. The report shows that some teachers’ fury at coalition reforms has led them to “blow my whistle and fly my flag” for the first time and feel grateful to the unions for “working hard to protect me against the work Gove is doing to destroy schools in England”. In contrast, others described themselves as “embarrassed” by industrial action and what they perceive as union “intransigence”.

The full LKMco report, entitled “Collectivists, Functionalists and Critics: What do teachers think of their unions?” and published on the 5th of September, shows that overall levels of satisfaction with unions are extremely high. 77% of teachers surveyed said they are satisfied with their union. This may explain why, whilst union membership has dropped in most sectors, it remains persistently high in education. On the other hand, satisfaction varied according to the different roles unions perform with 74% satisfied with unions’ collective bargaining and only 57% with the way unions raise the professional status of teachers.

The most important reasons why teachers joined unions were to secure employment protection and support in case of an allegation. However, the report’s author, Loic Menzies, argues that teachers join and stay in unions for various reasons. Whilst “Collectivists” join to work with others, building ‘solidarity’ to improve education, the majority of participants had more “functionalist” reasons for joining, based on individualistic motivations. Most teachers’ high satisfaction levels therefore resulted from the effective support unions provide.

Teachers spoke movingly about the crucial role unions played in helping them through complex problems and personal hardship. High satisfaction was not limited to classroom teachers; head teachers also praised the way unions worked with them and their relationships with union reps. However, despite such widespread praise, questions are raised by the fact that only 51% thought education in the UK was better as a result of the unions’ work.

Former Director of the Institute of Education, Geoff Whitty CBE commented that “Teaching is still one of the most unionised occupations in the UK. This useful report gives us a much needed insight into the reasons why today’s teachers join unions and what they think of them. It provides a good basis for thinking about how best to meet the professional needs of teachers in the future.”


Loic Menzies – Director, LKMco
@LKMco // [email protected] // 07793 370459


  • LKMco’s report ‘Collectivists, Functionalists and Critics: What do teachers think of their unions?’ is published by LKM Publishing on the 4th of September. It is available from Amazon or as a free download from cfey.dev.uk.
  •  The report is based on 384 responses to an online survey which ran from the 22nd of January and the 22nd of February as well as 22 detailed semi-structured interviews with teachers around the country. The research was funded by edapt UK who aim ‘to provide teachers with greater choice over how they source some of the services provided by unions’. To find out more please visit www.edapt.org.uk.
  • LKMco is an independent education and youth development think-and-action tank which believes society should ensure all young people receive the support they need in order make a fulfilling transition to adulthood. LKMco works with youth organisations, schools and teachers and carries out policy research and advocacy.
  • For further enquiries please contact [email protected]