THIS month marks a historic moment for teachers in England and Wales. Nearly 150 years after the idea was first mooted, teaching has become, in some respects, a self-regulating profession.
On June 1, the General Teaching Council took on the responsibility for operating a register of qualified practitioners, effectively controlling who has the right to teach in state schools.
The council will consider cases of teachers found guilty by their employers of misconduct or incompetence. Panels of up to five council members will have the power to strike fellow professionals off the register.
Teaching is the last major profession in the country to be given self-policing powers, and you would think that the move would have been welcomed on all sides.
Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "Teachers actually being able to make important judgments about whether other teachers have been guilty of misconduct or gross and persistent incompetence is very far from a threat to the profession.
"Unless this happens, anyone can get up and say there's 15,000 incompetent teachers out there, and no one's doing anything about it but me. This would be the best possible riposte to any such attempt to undermine the teaching profession."
Teachers' unions, however, report that they have been bombarded with complaints from members unhappy about the council, which is charging them pound;23 to be placed on the register.
Some unions say many teachers view the council's regulatory work as simply another government device to punish them. One union-nominated council member said: "Many teachers say, I'm having to pay this fee, yet what is the GTC going to do for me, apart from disciplining me?" Are such concerns justified?
From the point of view of a practising teacher, the move towards self-regulation has come at a price. Put simply, "self-regulation" sounds like "more regulation". Though controlled by government, the council's measures to police the profession are new.
Thus, up to now, a sacked teacher could be barred from working in another school only if the offence was serious enough for List 99 - the register of people banned for child abuse.
Now, the council may bar a teacher found guilty either of misconduct (where child abuse issues are not involved), or, more controversially, of incompetence.
The Department for Education and Skills will still control List 99, one reason why it is not possible to say that the profession is completely self-governing in this area.
At first sight, then, it seems a bad deal for teachers. But Peter Bishop, chairman of the GTC's investigating committee and head of Vyner primary, in Wirral, said that the reverse could be true. Before the register, there was, in theory, nothing to prevent a sacked teacher getting a job at another school. In real life, this was very difficult.
He added: "At the moment, if a head gets an application from a teacher who has been sacked for incompetence from their previous job, they are not going to consider them for the position.
"Now, if that person has gone before the GTC, and the council has said we are not going to deregister that teacher, the head might think again. The system could well work in favour of teachers."
He said that a teacher could have been sacked for incompetence after their work had suffered due to illness, or because they were simply not tough enough for an inner-city school, for example. A finding in the teacher's favour would leave them free to work in different circumstances. Mr Bishop is on the national executive of the National Union of Teachers, which has been critical of other areas of GTC activity.
Debate still rages about how many of the 450,000 teachers in England and Wales will be subject to GTC hearings. A survey two years ago found that more than 3,000 teachers a year were subject to capability procedures for incompetence. Six hundred were sacked.
In Scotland, which has had a General Teaching Council and register since the 1960s, the numbers have been low. Every year 200 cases of professional misconduct or criminal conviction are considered; the council will not acquire powers to consider incompetence cases until next May. Each year, around 10 teachers are struck off the register of some 75,000 professionals.
Despite these relatively low figures, problems loom for the disciplinary process south of the border. For instance, the arguments for and against the disciplinary functions will change fundamentally if the Government allows parents the right to complain directly to the council, if they are dissatisfied with a teacher.
The council itself has tried to stop this happening - its chief executive Carol Adams declared that the GTC "is not a body of parental complaint". At present, the council only considers cases once they have been fully investigated by the teacher's employer.
However, ministers have indicated that this could change. Next March, the DFES will begin consultations on whether parents should be allowed to complain directly to the council - effectively placing another layer of accountability on teachers. Supporters of this idea point to the fact that patients currently have a similar right to complain to the General Medical Council about doctors.
Other issues remain to be resolved. Though the council officially took responsibility for maintaining the register on June 1, its disciplinary rules will not be formally ratified until it next meets, on June 27. Among the questions still to be sorted out are whether it can consider allegations against a teacher made before the register's inception. However this is resolved, it will be almost impossible for the council to hear any cases before September.
The major problem with the launch of the regulations, however, is the fact that the council itself is proving unpopular with many teachers. Critics point to the fact that, at pound;23, the fee has been set higher than the pound;20 which was first suggested as a likely charge, though it has been twice reduced following bail-outs from ministers.
Many see the council as too close to the Government: its two most visible members, Ms Adams and chairman Lord Puttnam, were both DFES appointments. Overall, 13 of the 64 members were selected by the Secretary of State - another reason why some have reservations about describing the profession as self-regulating.
Finally, there has been the on-going feud with the unions, who are concerned that the council is trying to move into some of their areas, such as pay and conditions. The National Union of Teachers is advising members not to pay their fees, while it attempts to persuade the Government to fully fund the GTC, for at least another year.
Against this backdrop, it will be very difficult for the council to sell the rather abstract notion of the benefits of self-regulation to already demoralised teachers.
IN JUDGMENT ON MISCONDUCT AND INCOMPETENCE
IF a teacher is accused of misconduct or incompetence, the General Teaching Council will not consider the case from scratch, but only after their employer has already taken action.
If this has happened, and the teacher has been sacked, the employer must then refer the matter to the GTC for consideration. The council will consider cases only once a teacher has exhausted all the usual channels of appeal against the employer's decision.
One exception is where a teacher resigns while under capability procedures - effectively to avoid the sack. In such circumstances, the school's governing body could refer the matter to the council to consider barring the teacher from working elsewhere.
Special committees, made up of between three and five members, including at least two registered teachers, will consider cases once they reach the GTC. The investigating committee will decide whether there is a prima facie case for action.
If this is so, the case then passes to either a misconduct or an incompetence committee which will hear evidence for and against the teacher. The hearings will usually be in public. The teacher does have the right to request a private hearing but this will only be granted if the committee members are satisfied that this would not be against the public interest. All decisions will be made public.
Misconduct or incompetence committees can take one of five sanctions against a teacher who is found guilty. They can:
* Take no action
* Issue a reprimand warning the teacher not to transgress again
* Make a conditional registration order, imposing conditions such as training or support for the teacher to retain their registration
* Suspend the teacher from the register for up to two years
* Strike the teacher off the register for more than two years, after which the teacher would have to re-apply to the council to get back on the register.
(Checking what possibility for appeal teachers will have, after a decision is made)., calling witnesses if necessary.
DO THIS OR ELSE
THE GTC has chosen the Teacher Training Agency's list of standards for induction year as its guide to whether a teacher is guilty of serious professional incompetence. When an employer forwards a case, the members can act against a teacher they consider has fallen short in any of the following:
* setting clear targets for improving pupil achievement and monitoring their progress.
* securing good pupil behaviour in the classroom.
* planning for pupils with special educational needs.
* taking account of ethnic and cultural diversity to enrich the curriculum.
* being able to gauge accurately a child's level of achievement against attainment targets.
* liaising with parents or carers through informative oral and written reports on pupils' progress.
* where applicable, deploying support staff effectively.
* taking responsibility for implementing school policies and practices, including those on bullying and racial harassment.
* looking after their own professional development.
* planning effectively so they fulfil their own potential.