What next for the College of Teachers?

5th March 2016 at 08:18

Tom Bennett explores why no one’s claiming the College yet.


Political campaigns that try to scare people away from their opponent’s policy are often labelled ‘Project Fear’. In education we often see the opposite: I call it ‘Project Hope’, where a strategy or intervention is sold as being so unquestionable, so holy a good that to be against it is an affront to decency. Objectors are accused of standing in the way of progress through vague references to the shining future being thwarted. Neither tactic is helpful if you’re trying to have a sensible conversation about anything. 

Recently the College of Teaching suffered a serious dent to its prospects when its crowd funding campaign conspicuously failed to launch; from an target of £250,000, only £21,000 was found, most of that from organisations rather than teachers. It didn’t help that the initial target for success was changed half way through the project, from donations to donors, which looked suspiciously like moving the goalposts. Like the Black Knight from Holy Grail, supporters are claiming it’s just a scratch. It might be more serious than that.

When the College was first proposed, many of us were curious, and interested. I even blogged about the possibilities here. It appealed to me because it suggested a way for teachers to finally earn/ claw a seat at the Big Table, in an educational ecosystem that seemed determined to exclude Teacher Voice at every opportunity. Time passed, and the Word became flesh, and balls started to roll, and some people started to scratch at the itch. At that point, after a good deal of chin rubbing, even I started to warm to the prospect. Many of us expressed concern that whatever happened, this mustn’t become just another layer of bureaucracy. I wrote about my cautious celebration here. Sadly, it was the high tide of my optimism, and evidently many others.

Who are you?

Speak to any teacher in your average staffroom. Ask them what they think of the College of Teaching are. Their overwhelming reaction: who dat? they say, skidding from class to class like Billy Whizz. That’s not the CoT’s fault, but it’s not good. The next reaction is, ‘What would they actually do?’ Which leads to the second problem: nobody seems to know, including the spokespeople for the possible College. 

If you read the website, you’ll see claims of defining and approving high quality CPD and pathways into professionalism- which is a good thing, incidentally- but nothing whatsoever about how this will be achieved. At the moment it seems to stand for nothing. It has no aims other than to exist, and to be funded by we the teachers. That’s certainly bold.

What are we buying? What will the College represent? What does it believe in? Can you imagine any  political party starting and calling itself ‘The People Party’ (slogan- ‘we represent the people because we are the people’) who asked for your vote and the keys to the Town Hall; but when you asked them what they stood for, they said, ‘You tell us! Claim your party!’ Because that’s what the College strategy seems like from the outside. So far most of the support has come from existing institutions in education; but that’s easy to understand, because standing for nothing, it could be anything, and everyone can see their own reflection in it. 

Right now the college is an ambition; a wish on a napkin. That’s great; everything is a dream before it becomes real. But there’s been a strange tone to the campaign that has struck a false and uncomfortable chord: we have come to deliver you. The problem is, from what? And who are we? Teachers are already represented by a number of institutions and organisations, all of whom claim to represent their base. Why should this be different? What makes this this organisation more or less representative than the NUT, a subject association, or the Tufty Club? Or even the current College of Teachers, which I only a privileged few had even heard of before this current campaign.

Come see the violence inherent in the system

It’s one thing to be keen; it’s quite another to be zealous. The would be College has adopted in general a sensible approach to winning hearts and minds: I.B. Positive, and buckets of it. But the College isn’t an institution yet; it’s the idea of one, and ideas need to be argued, people need to be convinced. Many people are unconvinced a College is what we need right now; teachers who have a right to discuss the merits of this proposition. One senior founder called disputants ‘The Shouty Brigade’ on social media, vilifying the key demographic probably isn’t the best strategy. It’s no wonder that the campaign earned its own parody social media accounts. 

I’m reminded of the Monty Python King Arthur, trying to rally help from his vassals, grubbing about in the mud. ‘I am your King,’ he insists haughtily. ‘Well I didn’t vote for you,’ says Michael Palin’s sooty-faced serf. ‘Bloody peasant!’  ‘Ooh, what a giveaway!’

Grass roots movements are hard to build from the top down.  The College in its current form hasn’t formed in the revolutionary hearts of classroom teachers and chalk warriors; this was started by institutions, MPs and edu-sector Big Beasts. This was as un-grass-roots as possible. Sputnik is closer to the turf. It’s now in the hands of some dedicated teachers, but so far the College hasn’t even been able to agree who can be members- non teachers? Consultants? That itself has been telling. Every time you try to get a clear view of what it wants to be, fog descends. What benefits accrue membership? Or does membership denote some kind of status? Because right now the only bar appears to be ‘can you pay’? I can buy degrees like that from the internet already, along with Sea Monkeys and X-Ray Spectacles.

Tomorrow belongs to me

But there is a even more serious problem for the future: what it will stand for if it ever does decide. Because as you may have noticed, education is not an undisputed water. At times it resembles Europe between WW1 and WWII, states in a perpetual daisy chain of war, diplomacy and intrigue. Progs and trads are just one plane in this Game of Thrones; state and private; hi-tech versus low; libertarian versus authoritarian; holistic versus exam….the disputes are multiple. Even the College’s modest claim at the moment that it will potentially help act as an arbiter of CPD could lead to trouble. We certainly need to regulate and separate the swamp of cowboys and charlatans that currently feed upon and bleed schools of their purses, from their serious and professional counterparts. But which is which? The minute you stamp your approval on one camp, you lose the others. If you license people who train in Thinking Hats and Mantle of the Expert, then teaching communities that adhere to direct instruction and teacher led activities will spit feathers- and vice versa. And if you license both, then you beg the question of why have a licence at all. The problem is that once the College stands for Anything, it loses. 

Teaching isn’t a mature profession yet. It could be. But a profession needs a core body of agreed knowledge, and we are nowhere near a consensus  on that anytime soon. You can have a body representing architects and accountancy because they agree on so much. In education we can barely agree on how to hold a pen. I believe  that through a powerful synthesis of online conversations, new collaborative structures and face to face interactions, we can start to build a shared understanding of all what we do. But until that Lutherian utopia it’s hard to see a College being anything more than one tribe amongst many. Imagine if a College parked its tanks on the lawns of learning Styles, NLP and Mindfulness. 

Well I didn’t vote for you

The extent of the consultation of the profession has been so far a self-selecting, unweighted survey of people who may not have been teachers; a survey that crucially didn’t include the question ‘Do you want a College of Teaching?’ but instead focussed on a list of vague and leading questions about the ‘values’ that teachers support then claiming this indicates support for a College. Claims, made by various representatives on the campaign trail that a ‘tipping point of support’ has been reached are reminiscent of Walter Mitty.

Why does this matter? Because a hypothetical College would eventually claim authority over teachers, however much they may insist the opposite. If it ever existed it would act as representative and regulator of the teaching profession. 

Some have even derided criticism as negative, as if this itself were an argument; but ideas people feel negative about will receive negative responses. ‘Don’t kill my buzz man’ isn’t a good enough answer to serious concern. Maybe being careful about building another institution to dominate and direct us isn’t what we need right now. I’d call that caution being part of the solution. Claims that this will be nothing like the GTC are welcome, but the GTC never started off wanting to be what it became, which is an expensive magazine that could sack you. 

The journey of a 1000 donors begins with a single IWB

The point is, teachers could start this any day they wanted. It doesn’t require millions of pounds of funding, cross sector backing, and corporate approval. It needs teachers to work together, who decide they want to do this. It can be done with no money. Passion and talent are the currency this needs. Treating it like a start-up is the wrong place to start. It should be  snowball. Successful bands grow from garage audiences to pubs to concerts, building up a base as they go. They can’t be invented ex-nihilo, not if they want respect from the profession. There is a small and talented band of practising teachers- the most important constituency- who want this to work, and their task now is building a platform of what they believe and then selling that message to the profession, not waiting for a parcel labelled ‘the will of the profession’ to arrive so they know what to do. 

And if their ideas are good, people will listen. So let’s hear them.