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A champion steps forward at last

The General Teaching Council is not a "super union", but it will speak for the whole profession. Estelle Currie reports.

YOUR school's postbag is probably already bulging with Christmas cards and the usual stream of documents from the Department for Education and Employment. But you are about to receive yet another brown envelope - all about the General Teaching Council. So what's different about this one, and why should you open it? Well, the chiefs at the GTC would not blame you for being suspicious.

"Teachers have had 30 years of feeling like the battered wives of relatively brutal husbands," says Lord David Puttnam, former film-maker and now chair of the GTC. "Teachers almost instinctively flinch at any demands or requirements placed on them, because they see it not as benign or useful, but as a kind of imposition - and I don't blame them."

But change is in the air, and he believes the profession is ready for a professional association such as the GTC. "This is a fantastically important moment in educational history - I get a very clear sense that even in the short time I've been involved things are changing. (The GTC) happens to be coming along at exactly the right moment for the teaching profession that needs it and actually wants it."

Convincing teachers that the GTC will be able to deliver that change is the Council's first priority. Already there has been resistance to registering. Not surprising, says GTC chief executive, Carol Adams, a former chief education officer, inspector and classroom teacher. "There hasn't been a body like this for the teaching profession before. It's been stalled, it's been held up for centuries really. And quite honestly, teachers are bound to see another organisation which has been set up by Parliament as another group of people going to do things to them.

"The biggest challenge is communicating to teachers that we are quite, quite different. And we have no hidden agenda, we are there for teachers. We are not trying to build an empire, we are not an arm of government."

The connection with the Government is hard to avoid. Central Government has covered the Council's initial costs, providing pound;16 million. There are offices in London and Birmingham, employing 75 staff.

Created by the Teaching and Higer Education Act in 1998, the Council will advise the Secretary of State on a wide range of issues, from recruitment and initial teacher training, to professional development. Having compelled teachers to sign up, the Council will have the power to strike a teacher off its register for professional misconduct or incompetence.

The Council began work in September, but between them Puttnam and Adams have been consulting teachers since 1998. The feedback is clear, says Adams. "There's a sense of being overburdened with too much instruction and regulation, which is taking away from the joy and satisfaction of being a real professional."

To tackle that, the GTC plans to publish a code for teachers in the spring, which will emphasise their professional status. "Teachers have a very special role, a very important role. They are at the forefront of change, the frontline contact for the next generations. And this ought to be recognised - there's been insufficient understanding of what's involved in being a teacher.

"We've got to be an advocate organisation that makes very bold, very clear demands on government and other bodies, and those demands are seen by teachers to be absolutely spot on as to what's needed and are recognised by government and other bodies as being the solution to some of the problems that we have."

For now the Council is concentrating on a set of specific demands which it will put to Government on critical areas such as the recruitment and retention of teachers. Will the Government listen? David Putt-nam says: "If we're giving strong, considered advice from a crucial community, unless that advice is so prejudiced as to become nonsense, the Government would be silly not to listen."

How do Adams and Puttnam see the Council developing? In five years time, Puttnam believes teachers will be feeling more valued. He expects to have shortened the lines of communication between the average classroom teacher and the Government. And in 10 years? "In 10 years time it will be a complete and absolute acknowledgement of the quality of the teaching profession, of what it does, the way it does it and the environment in which it does it. It is intimately connected to the long-term quality of life in this country. That is the real pay-off."

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