Beware ministers bearing promises

Teachers would be in double jeopardy if a new General Teaching Council assessed their competence, Doug McAvoy warns. It now looks as if there could be legislation for a General Teaching Council whichever party forms the next government. Up until very recently successive governments have argued that legislation was not needed. But the political climate seems to have changed.

The Labour and Liberal Democrat positions are public and explicit, at least in principle. The Labour party's position is outlined in its document Excellence for Everyone which says: "Labour will establish a General Teaching Council which gives full recognition to the professional status of teachers."

Teachers, however, should examine the sharp questions about a future GTC's functions asked by minister Eric Forth during the report stage of the current Bill. He asked, is it an advisory body or is it there only to register and deregister teachers? Would it usurp or replace functions carried out by the Teacher Training Agency and the Department for Education and Employment or will it only advise? Would it comprise of a majority of teachers and would they be chosen by election, appointment or invitation? And what would be its relationship with the teacher unions?

These are important questions, particularly coming from a government which has in the past disparaged the concept of a teachers' council supported by legislation. There may be a trap for teachers here.

It is worth standing back and reviewing the history of moves to set up a register of teachers and council going back beyond the end of the last century. It was Ted Short, a Labour education secretary, who agreed in 1969 to set up a working party under one of his departmental officials, Toby Weaver, to report on setting up a GTC.

The working party suggested two committees - a teaching council which would recommend the basis for entry to training and teaching and a second which eventually became the Advisory Committee on the Education and Training of Teachers. Its purpose was to advise the secretary of state on the education and supply of teachers.

This division of responsibility was rejected by the National Union of Teachers and others. The Weaver Committee proposals foundered because they did not satisfy the teacher unions' desire for a self-governing profession.

The advisory committee came and went. Successive governments during the 1980s hardened their opposition to a teachers' council and rejected any transfer of influence or control to the profession. The University Council on the Education of Teachers (UCET) agreed to co-ordinate support for a GTC. This voluntary initiative led the organisations supporting a GTC to form a company in 1989 and it is the company's proposals which provide the basis for campaigning.

Neither John Tomlinson, who has done an excellent job in steering the project thus far, nor the company's members would argue that there is a complete blueprint yet. At the cusp of the old and new governments, therefore, it is worth reflecting on the purpose of a GTC.

In doing so we should be careful not to make over-ambitious claims about its capacity to raise teacher morale. Recognising the quality of teachers, genuinely responding to teachers' views and providing the working conditions necessary for teaching are all at present in the hands of government. A GTC offered as a substitute for such actions will stimulate professional cynicism rather than confidence.

The prime reason for establishing a GTC must be because it is the profession itself which is best placed to take on the job of advising government on the supply and education of teachers. But this raises questions about the future role of the Teacher Training Agency.

The TTA carries out various prescribed functions and no political party envisages its removal. It has advisory as well as operational roles. Yet, its continuing existence need not jeopardise a future GTC's advisory role on the education and supply of teachers. The fact that, as a single entity, the agency carries out both functions for government removes the argument for splitting the functions of a GTC.

A General Teaching Council should advise the TTA on the education and supply of teachers and the TTA should be required to publish and respond to that advice. The council would have responsibility for the registration and deregistration of teachers and would be responsible for promoting teaching as a profession separately or in conjunction with the agency. And the council would advise the secretary of state directly on the use of grants for education support and training.

The GTC should also have the right to advise the government directly on the education and supply of teachers which, in turn, would respond to that advice in the same way as it responds currently to TTA proposals. The GTC would be entitled to data on issues for which it had direct responsibility and the TTA should have the responsibility of providing administrative support to the council.

For the teaching profession to have confidence that the GTC is a body which can act on its behalf, the majority of members on the Council should be teachers. Those members must be accountable for their actions. Teacher organisations have a high degree of internal democracy which would ensure that nominated representatives to the GTC are both elected and accountable.

Probably the single, most sensitive area for future discussion is the GTC's disciplinary powers. This was highlighted recently by the Secretary of State. An extraordinary article in a recent edition of the Mail on Sunday entitled "Sense at last in the blackboard jungle', announced that the Government is thinking of establishing a GTC, which would "lay down strict guidelines on how teachers delivered the best schools based on sound traditional practice".

The Secretary of State said that "we feel very sympathetic to the kind of GTC that would be concerned with professional standards". More recently she proposed that appraisal and national targets would be linked with capability procedures for teacher competence.

Is the Government, then, thinking of giving a future GTC responsibility for deregistering teachers, based on appraisal of competence or capability? That is the spectre raised by this article.

The GTC company has been careful to minimise the possibility of creating a "double jeopardy" for teachers; the situation that could arise where an employer may choose to retain a teacher whereas a GTC disciplinary decision to deregister the teacher would effectively make that teacher unemployable. Giving the GTC the responsibility for teachers' capability would increase the possibility of "double jeopardy". Such a confusion of the employer's role with that of the GTC would be unacceptable.

The disciplinary and deregulation powers of a GTC must be confined to the conduct, not competence or capability, of teachers. If its disciplinary powers are not defined in this way, then the GTC will not be supported by teachers.

The best way forward is by consensus. As Sir Malcolm Thornton, the Conservative chairman of the select committee for education said: "The first essential underpinning of the council I must be unanimity, and agreement between (the Government) and existing professional organisations".

Doug McAvoy is general secretary of the NUT

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