John Bangs: `We need to ensure union buy-in to a College of Teaching'

John Bangs, honorary visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge, writes:
1st January 2015, 12:00am


John Bangs: `We need to ensure union buy-in to a College of Teaching'

What is there not to support in the creation of a professional council for teachers? Teaching is multi-disciplinary and multi-facetted. Education is at the heart of successful economies and stable, pluralist societies. Schools are profoundly moral institutions in which teachers have to be the arbiters of right and wrong, day in, day out. Along with parents (and sometimes on their own), it is teachers' judgements which are responsible instilling in children optimism about the future and an enthusiasm for life-long learning.

Surely a professional council is long overdue? Surely, given their importance to society, teachers should have a council that determines standards and enables the sharing of best practice? Nothing, however, is simple.

The call for a College for Teaching is an excellent initiative and, admirably, the organisations backing it are seeking consensus at every step. However, it is not clear that many, including the political parties, have learnt any of the lessons from the abolition of the GTCE.

Thus far, I've referred to a `professional council' rather than a college to underline an obvious point. It has to be the profession's own council. While the College of Teaching is the only game in town, it is worth reminding ourselves that there was very little opposition to the GTCE's execution - particularly from the very people it was intended for.

So, what are the issues? First, teacher unions are often seen as a problem rather than a solution. Yet the public sector is the most unionised part of England's workforce and teaching is the most unionised section of the public sector. Teachers voluntarily join teacher unions not just for protection but to express their hopes, fears and values as well as, increasingly, to meet their professional needs. When the GTCE was established, the common question teachers asked was, "Why am I being asked to pay for the GTCE - I'm already a member of a union?" What need, then, would a college be meeting?

To start with, rather than the elephant in the room, teacher unions should be considered entirely necessary partners. That is exactly the case with the GTCs in both Ireland and the other countries of the UK. It is a mistake to say that any new council or college will not intrude on unions' responsibilities for pay and conditions as if (a) that is a reassurance and (b) that is all they do. Neither is true. Coupled with that approach (a common iteration by the previous government when it founded the GTCE), this view carries with it the faint implication that teacher policy, including professional development, would somehow be in better hands with a more professional body.

In fact, many teacher unions globally, as well as in the UK, would argue that they have very many features of professional councils. To use a long-standing phrase, they not only protect, they promote and provide.

Above all, teacher unions will need to see that there is a gap that only a college can fill. A college would have to add value to unions' own activities.

Which segues into my second point. Teacher unions did not campaign against the GTCE, although its disciplinary panel's notorious decision not to ban a teacher who was a BNP member led to union protests and was the trigger for Gove's decision to axe it. Despite a third of their members remaining actively hostile, most unions' passivity protected the GTCE for a long time. However, neither was its passing a great blow. So, for the college to be successful unions have to actively campaign for and support it.

What role should the College have? How will teachers as well as their unions see it as a benefit?

Firstly, it could provide a common site for debate on the future of teacher policy; for teachers and for their unions.

Secondly, it could provide a common access point for union, school and indeed privately-provided professional development programmes with teacher evaluations factored in.

Thirdly, the College's commitment to a professional knowledge base is very welcome, but the success of the TES website points to a deep desire among teachers to share and moderate their practice.

Fourthly, as in Wales, the college could fund professional development for individual teachers. If the government is serious about funding, the college part of that funding could go to support innovative professional development bids, whether from teachers, schools or unions.

These are just some ideas. The college's current objectives point in the right direction, as does its decision to make membership voluntary. However, no one has actually asked teachers whether they want a professional council or college and, if so, what it should look like.

A survey of all teachers is at least 20 years overdue and is one thing a future government could fund. It would be high stakes but worth it. Unions that have a stake would enhance not only the chances of their members' active engagement with a college but also ensure its future success.

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