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The General Teaching Councilisn't always popular with new teachers, but it has saved the careers of some NQTs, writes Karen Thornton

For some, it is a "very sorry joke" that robs teachers of their hard-earned cash for very little return. But the General Teaching Council for England has helped save the careers of a few newly qualified teachers.

Now, the Council wants to decide the standards that student teachers must meet in order to join the profession.

The GTCE was set up in 2000 as the professional body for the teaching force in England - maintaining standards in the profession, registering members, and disciplining or striking off the incompetent or dangerous.

It was a long time coming - after all, Scotland has had one since 1965. But the fledgling English council, first chaired by Lord Puttnam, suffered serious birth pangs. The biggest was a grassroots rebellion against paying the annual fee (pound;28) for what many still consider to be a government quango. But there is no excuse now as pound;33 a year goes into teachers' wages to cover the fee. Even so, around 20,000 registered teachers have refused to pay up.

Judging by comments on The TES online staffroom forum, there is still widespread cynicism about what the council does with its pound;12.5 million annual budget. New teachers complain about the late issuing of qualified teacher status certificates, callsto offices not being answered, and having to pay a full year's fees from March when they are still student teachers.

"What exactly does this ridiculous organisation do?" asks one exasperated NQT contributor. Actually, quite a lot, insist council staff and members - and not least for those starting out.

There is registration, a legal requirement for working in a state school.

It also "hears appeals against failure of the induction period - something that affects a minority of new teachers but is an important safeguard", says Fiona Simpson, communications director.

"One of the practical outcomes of the induction appeal process is that we can start drawing together lessons on teachers' needs during the induction period to improve the support available to future NQTs. The GTCE will be able to guide the profession and employers on the preventative steps that could be taken to avoid conduct and competence referrrals."

As of last term, the council had heard 23 appeals - one appeal was upheld, 10 were dismissed and 12 resulted in extensions to induction periods. One 2002 NQT told the TES online staffroom that the council had "saved my career" after she was failed for inadequate classroom management, despite others having similar problems in the school.

"If the GTCE hadn't listened to me, I don't think I would be teaching right now," she writes. "There are probably a load of paper pushers and policy wonks within the GTCE, but there are also some very decent people there as well. I'm proof of it."

The council has also been doing its bit to help keep new teachers in the profession - and that's crucial given that up to half have dropped out within five years of starting out. On the council's recommendation, the Department for Education and Skills set up 12 pilot projects in October 2001 giving cash to teachers in their first three years for them to spend on their own training. New teachers used the money to attend courses or pay for supply cover while they observed other teachers.

More than half of the young guns taking part in the early professional development pilots said they were more likely to stay in teaching, and more than 60 per cent said that their teaching practice had improved.

Unfortunately, as a result of this year's schools funding crisis, the Government has withdrawn the pound;59 million it set aside to extend the programme nationwide.

However, the GTCE is still working on a teacher learning academy which would grant academic credits towards masters qualifications for teachers' learning "on the job". For example, the learning gained from developing whole-school work on gifted and talented pupils could be accredited.

Teachers would become members of the academy, with titles ranging from "associate" (entry level) to "senior fellow" (for those undertaking doctoral research).

Meanwhile, the council is making a big effort to meet teachers. As an NQT, Wendy Branch attended one meeting in London to discuss the needs of black and ethnic minority teachers and pupils. She is in her second year of teaching at Cann Hall primary school in Waltham Forest, north-east London.

"I thought the GTCE was very good, very encouraging, and quite informative," she says.

"I think it's important that teachers have a council that is independent of government and the DfES, and that teachers regulate teachers.

"I don't think anyone outside teaching would know about the GTCE. The public should know more about it, and be more aware of the actual job teachers do and the difficulties they face."

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, agrees. "The GTCE does have an image problem," he says. "It's because a lot of teachers don't quite understand what it is for. It's up to people who sit on the GTCE to sell it."

Those people are set to change. Elections took place in February to vote in a new council, which will start its four-year term in the summer. Tony Neal, the council's elected secondary head member and head of De Aston school in Market Rasen, Lancashire, says: "We started from nothing less than four years ago with two tasks: taking over the regulatory work on behalf of the profession, and the longer-term task of clarifying the idea of the council in the hearts and minds of professionals. That's not a four-year task, it's a 25-year task. That's the job for the next council and the council after that."

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