Feeling railroaded into membership? Join the club

Groucho Marx once famously remarked: "I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member."

At least he had a choice. It's more than you can say for thousands of college lecturers who have been corralled into further education's new professional body: the Institute for Learning (IfL), set up by the Government in 2007 as an FE equivalent to the General Teaching Council. Those working in FE colleges were told they had to register by March 30 this year.

When many - including me - ignored this deadline, they found their employers had started the registration for them, giving details to the IfL whether they liked it or not. That leaves us in a curious dangling state: half registered, half not. In the end, we know we'll have to join. If not, we lose our jobs.

Even so, this month sees the approach of a new registration deadline, with teachers in sixth-form colleges and other Learning and Skills Council- funded provision being required to join by September 30. Actually, lecturers working in sixth-form colleges get a choice - to join the GTC as an alternative if they wish. But, as the IfL tends to ape the GTC in some important regards, it turns out not to be much of a choice at all.

Both bodies, the Government says, aim to promote greater professionalism in teaching. Indeed, one of the 13 points listed under "benefits of membership" on the IfL website is "the creation of a distinct professional identity for teachers". As it also suggests membership will bring a "parity of esteem with other professionals", one can't help but detect a certain degree of managerial tongue in institutional cheek. Do they really believe my (enforced) IfL membership will mean I will be regarded - not to mention paid - in the same way that lawyers and doctors are?

They are not mentioned on the IfL website, but there are some downsides to membership. One is that, as with other professional bodies, the IfL has been given the right to "try" its members if they break its code of professional practice. Should you be unfortunate enough to be found guilty, you will soon find that the IfL has real teeth. It has a range of sanctions, including the power to strike you off the register - in effect prohibiting you from teaching.

Since it began its work in 2000, the GTC has regularly heard such cases, including recently that of a young teacher in Devon who was struck off for two years for being in possession of recreational drugs at work.

In law, double jeopardy means a person can't be tried twice on the same set of facts. But if you are an FE teacher, it seems you are now in line to be penalised not twice but three times. First, your employer will take action if you commit a misdemeanour at work. Second, if you have broken the law, you may be up before the courts; and then the IfL, to complete a triple whammy of punishments.

Close reading of the IfL's code provides little reassurance. On the contrary, it's a real hotch-potch - vague, obvious and menacing by turns. Take the first provision under the heading Professional Integrity. Members must "meet their professional responsibilities consistent with the Institute's professional values". As these are not spelled out, it could mean almost anything. If they mean the code itself, doesn't that make it an empty duplication?

Similarly vague is the requirement that members "respect the rights of learners and colleagues in accordance with relevant legislation and organisation requirements". To which one might well reply, "Yes, well, obviously!"

And "obvious" is certainly the word for several other strictures: "Members should take reasonable care to ensure the safety and welfare of learners." Funnily enough, in 30 years of teaching, I'd never thought of that. And do we really need a professional code to tell us to "comply with all reasonable assessment and quality procedures and obligations" when every day we're expected to comply with all the unreasonable ones too?

If some parts are just soppy, you can't say the same for point five of the Professional Integrity section. Here, you might say "sinister" is the more apt term: "Members shall uphold the standing and reputation of the Institute and not knowingly undermine or misrepresent its views, nor their Institute membership."

Watch what you say is the clear implication. And what price free speech if I am prohibited from "undermining" the Institute's views? Am I out of line in writing this article? Can I be chucked out of the Institute before I've even properly joined?

Break any of these "rules" and you could find yourself in the IfL dock. But who can report you? Answer: anyone. "We welcome," the IfL website gushes, "reports from a wide range of people and organisations, including learners, other members and the general public." And if you're thinking of shopping a colleague, don't worry that your allegation might be a bit past its sell-by date: "The IfL has the ability to investigate concerns about a member that occurred prior to a member's registration with it."

Despite this long list of do's and don'ts, some key areas of practice remain unclear. For instance, one of the obligations put upon Institute members is that they carry out at least 30 hours of continuing professional development per year.

But what if I don't quite manage the full 30? What if I don't do any? How will it be policed? Once again, perhaps colleagues could be encouraged to keep an eye on one another. Inform on one member's CPD failure and win an extra day's holiday. Inform on two and take a week.

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