The College of Teaching: if not now, when?

20th January 2015 at 23:39



The drums of possibility are beating a hopeful tattoo – three words: College of Teaching. It's been floating in the background for a few years now, ever since the Education Select Committee first speculated on whether such a body could work. You might not have been heard much about it, but it's been brewing, sometimes underground, sometimes visible.


Tonight I spent my evening at the Wellcome Trust HQ (which makes the DfE seem modest and cramped) in their underground hollow volcano in Euston Square. It was host to a college consultation meeting; last Saturday, there was a consultative event for teachers in Birmingham, but today was invite only. Maybe 70 people over 13 tables; perhaps reassuringly, there were many teachers (at least one per table I heard) – albeit often management – including me, you could have rounded up the classroom teachers and quite comfortably twerked in a fridge together. Still, we'll always have Birmingham. (The representative from the SSAT boldly described Birmingham as "like something from Planes, Trains and Automobiles", and I'm thinking, "What the bit where John Candy wakes up in bed with Steve Martin?")


The idea behind the College of Teaching is certainly attractive – of course it is; everyone sees their own reflection in its mirror. The idea that we could use a little mobilisation, and a good deal of professionalisation, is one that appeals to many. It's the One Ring; we all believe we'd use it only for good. It's omnipopular in general, and debatable in the specific.


Tonight was focused more on organisations than rank and file though. I'll be honest: I've wrestled with the whole concept of the College; I have big 'buts' and I cannot lie.


This cannot be an organisation for salon philosophers and consultants – not because all consultants are bad (I know many excellent ones), but because this needs to represent the interests of teachers inside the profession, not merely replicating the power structures that already exist throughout. And currently the progression is dominated, drowned and disempowered by a chorus of lurkers and gawkers; the consultants, the theoreticians, the ideologues and the expert inexperts. Never before in The History of Professions have so many been told to do so much by so many non-teachers. Frankly, there are enough opportunities already for non-teachers to influence education in so many ways. It's time that we scraped a little space for ourselves. Excluding some might seem stringent, but it's the price we pay for creating something genuinely new and pure, not just a simulacrum of business as usual.


Because teaching has, in recent history, been dominated by amateurs who often know nothing of classrooms. I'm tired of people telling us that good behaviour can be picked up as you go along, that it isn't key to teacher training, or that it comes from well-planned lessons – usually by people who would survive longer in space without a suit than they would in a tough class of Year 9s. I'm tired of educational research dressed as evidence when it belongs in the mysticism/spirituality section of the bookshop (or just fiction), not infesting classrooms. I'm tired of being the only sector in education that doesn't get asked what we think, on a regular and structured basis. I'm tired of teachers being the only segment to lack a voice in education. Teacher voice is long overdue. And that's why the College, if it's going to succeed, needs to be run by teachers. Composed of teachers. For teachers. This cannot become a jolly for people who get paid to talk and do damn all else. The best bargaining position is to know you can walk away from the table.


But I don't want to walk away. I've been campaigning for teacher voice for years. It would be a sin to drop this moment, when so many stars seem to be in alignment that you start to ask if the universe wants this to happen. When funding is in place. When political will is, for once, cross-party. We need to make this work, or we prove we didn't deserve it in the first place.


Who eventually constitutes the Politburo of this institution will be vital. The draft proposal considered tonight speculates an elected body of Founding Trustees: some nominated by, eg, unions, some by other bodies, three rings for the Elven Kings under the sky, etc. This is where horse-trading will be at its most intense. That's a Helms Deep for another day. But it's going to be crucial. If the process throws up Quislings and establishment Gollums we can all go home. If it creates a body of teachers that we can respect, then we might just be going somewhere.


A big topic of debate was, "should we accept £11 million from the government to set up the College?" And I'm thinking, "Is this a trick question?" As long as it's a fire and forget investment, and the strings are transparent and based on agreed aims and accountability, then why not? All parties have made it clear this needs to be an independent body, and as long as the strategy is to become independent, then the lucre isn't so filthy.


What could a college offer? The architects suggest:


  • Career development – Recognising alternative career paths beyond crawling up the SLT pay scale. Specialists, perhaps – research leads? SEN teachers?
  • Professional development: advising and certifying learning opportunities
  • Professional knowledge: agreeing a core body of professional knowledge.
  • Supportive environments: encouraging schools to commit to collegiate standards of support.


The suggestion is that membership is voluntary, so anyone concerned that this is just another tier of graft and bureaucracy can take comfort in that. And criticisms that they haven't consulted enough, or broadly enough are also a little unfair; this has been in the public arena for years and, short of putting an invite in everyone's pigeonholes, I'm not sure how much more public it could have been. 


I think there is a real opportunity here. I think we owe it to ourselves, to our profession, to run as far and as fast with this as we can. The moment – and I mean the nanosecond – it starts to become a consultants' trough, or relegitimises existing power structures, then I'll be the first one at the bonfire with matches. But now is the time to create, not destroy. There's a chance here – and I don't care if it's one in ten – that something beautiful and valuable could be built. I think teachers should try to be architects right now. It would make a change. And we don't wait to be allowed. We act, with furious intent. And maybe we can be a profession again, instead of the delivery men and women that entropy, and attrition have tried to make us. This could be a revolutionary act if we make it so. That's certainly something worth trying to achieve.


I'm in. Steady as she goes.