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Focus on Puttnam;Leading Article;Opinion;News amp; Opinion

THE APPOINTMENT of a film producer and Labour peer to chair the General Teaching Council for England will be a shock to many teachers, who will have been hoping that one of their own would be chosen to head up their professional body.

But the fact that Lord Puttnam of Queensgate comes with no education "baggage" could be a strength in such a highly-politicised context. The profession is still divided over the Green Paper which was supposed to map out its future, and, of course, boasts no fewer than six trade unions. Identifying a single voice was never going to be easy.

Other professional councils - the General Medical Council and the Law Society, for example - are, it is true, led by practitioners. But while that naturally gives them credibility with their membership, it doesn't necessarily make them any more influential with a Government that is highly suspicious of vested interests and special pleading. And, though the convener of the GTC in Scotland is a teacher, the Scottish council is not a particularly powerful model to emulate.

At a stroke, the appointment of Lord Puttnam has made the English teaching council - at least for its first 18 months - a very different animal. He promises to be a high-profile and vocal advocate for teachers with the public, the media and the Government.

But though Puttnam lacks education baggage, political baggage he certainly has - and he'll have to convince teachers that he is genuinely independent of his friends in high places, as the remit for the new council (see page 5) says he should be. He is not, though, simply a political placeman, having gone through the selection process for public appointments which was put in place as a result of Lord Nolan's recommendations in 1995.

The choice of Puttnam shows that David Blunkett wants teachers to feel that someone is batting for them. Although many would have preferred an ex-teacher, the blunt fact is that few ex-teachers - apart from Chris Woodhead - have any political influence. And once the GTC is fully established, members will be electing their own chair anyway.

Meanwhile, teachers will be watching Puttnam closely to see whose side he's really on. They may well conclude that his appointment was a bold and imaginative stroke.

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