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21st century challenges

Michael Barber finds that short-termism is the order of the day. Here, the teaching profession remains hopelessly fragmented and hence disturbingly ill-prepared for its collective destiny.

Responsibility for the profession is carved up among a variety of agencies. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority establishes what teachers should teach; the Teacher Training Agency decides how they should be trained to teach it; the Office for Standards in Education decides whether they are teaching it well; and the School Teachers' Review Body decide how much they should be paid for their often superhuman efforts.

Lurking behind the quangos is the Department for Education, which appoints their members. It too holds crucial cards in its hand; for example, it decides who should, or should not, be awarded qualified teacher status.

Faced with this splintered model of governance, the profession itself provides no countervailing force for unity. On the contrary, it remains divided against itself. The six unions, with differences of tradition, history, and leadership, show no signs of working together. Indeed, it is a bitter irony that the only pure market in education is the competition among the teacher unions for members.

The argument for unity would appear to be as strong as it is obvious. There is, however, a counter view that to have several unions reflecting the differing attitudes that are bound to exist within a profession as diverse as teaching is better than attempting to promote the lowest common denominator. Either way, the present state of affairs encourages a focus on what divides the profession rather than on what unites it. Public arguments over tactics and attitude to Government policy proposals drown the possibility of a potentially irresistible unity around pedagogy and the teacherpupil relationship.

Worse still, there is no organisation whose task it is to think hard about the long-term future of the profession. A union which asks inevitably controversial questions about the long-term future risks short-term unpopularity and loss of membership. Although there have been exceptions, the logic of the market makes short-termism overwhelmingly the order of the day.

Meanwhile, the quangos, caught up as they are in party politics, have little incentive to look beyond the next general election.

The consequences of this combination of division and short-termism have been little short of catastrophic not only for the status, image and influence of the profession, but also for policy development.

Though the Government has recently adopted a welcome pragmatism, the arrogance it demonstrated before 1993 was partly because there was no credible and coherent alternative to its agenda. Tinkering with the palpably inadequate pre-1988 model had little to be said for it. No wonder John Patten seemed to believe for a while that he could walk on water.

The truth is that unless the teaching profession sets an agenda for its own development role, someone else will. Complaining after the event cuts little ice.

A General Teaching Council is surely the goal, but in the meantime could not those organisations which represent teachers begin to discuss publicly what might characterise the profession in the 21st century?

Michael Barber is professor of education at Keele University.

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