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From gatekeeper to classroom enforcer;Platform;Opinion

A revamped General Teaching Council with wider powers must look beyond narrow interests, says John Dobie

THE REVIEW of the General Teaching Council being undertaken for the Scottish Office by consultants from Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu has been generally welcomed since it is almost 35 years since the council was established. The White Paper on Targeting Excellence asked for the review to look at two new tasks for the GTC - drawing up a standard for completion of probation and considering deregistration of teachers dismissed for incompetence.

The council has long wanted its remit extended beyond probation into continual professional development. Such ambitions are not wholly shared by local authorities which have indicated that primary responsibility for professional performance and conduct must rest with them as employers. These reservations needed to be stated plainly so that the reviewers are aware of them.

The GTC's main statutory function is to maintain the register and to collect dues from teachers. Generally this is carried out efficiently, but there is a need for the process to be modernised by computerised networking with the employers and other interested parties.

The registration role links to involvement in initial teacher education and probation and to the disciplinary function, which has to do with removal from the register. The advisory role in relation to teacher supply is connected to the central registration system.

The council's responsibility for probation depends entirely on the professionalism of headteachers and the quality of their reports. The GTC does not make use of the advice and experience of HMI in terms of quality assurance. Since the Inspectorate has pointed to managerial and other deficiencies in a minority of heads, there must be doubts about consistent standards. That has not been helped by the GTC consistently refusing education authorities any role in moderating or contributing to the reporting process.

The probation system is haphazard and incapable of withstanding objective scrutiny. It has not done much to prevent unsatisfactory teachers staying in the job. That begs the question whether keeping of the register might be more appropriately undertaken by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

On discipline, the GTC has no independent means of investigating complaints and is therefore unable to act except in cases involving criminal convictions. It cannot deal with what might be described as professional misconduct.

Again on initial teacher education, the GTC's role has been relatively minor because it has no capacity to conduct its own inquiries. Much the same could be said for its advice on supply of teachers. Despite its notional role of principal adviser to the Secretary of State, there is little reason to think that its advice has been regarded as highly as that of the education authorities or the teacher education institutions.

Helen Liddell as minister of education wants the GTC to be "a pace-setter for the teaching profession in the 21st century". Gordon Kirk, the council's vice-convener, said in The TES Scotland that the "gatekeeper" of the profession should be the driving force for excellence and that the current review should not become sidetracked by reporting on the council's rules, procedures and working arrangements. He wants a majority of members to continue to be teachers, perhaps with a majority among them advanced professional teachers.

Clarifying the GTC's functions should indeed be the first stage, but its composition and how it goes about its business should not be relegated. There must be fundamental reform. Once again in last year's elections 26 teachers out of the 49 members were in effect elected by trade union slate.

Surely it cannot be in the education service's best interests for the independence of the council to be compromised by the power battle going on between the teaching unions for control of its committees? The role of the GTC should not be that of representing professional interests except in so far as these coincide with a broader public interest. It is impossible to guarantee that that interest is effectively represented when the majority of members see themselves as representatives of the teaching profession and are elected on a slate. There must be stronger representation of other broader educational interests and more importantly those of the general public in the form of parent and employer members.

The Teaching and Higher Education Act recognised the need for wider representation in establishing teaching councils for England and Wales. The Scottish review should consider allowing all interest groups to submit nominations. The period of membership should also be rethought to secure a regular turnover of new members without jeopardising continuity.

The size of the council and the number of committees might usefully be reduced. So might the number of GTC nominees to a host of other bodies.

The White Paper deals with dismissal of unprofessional teachers. It describes the insistence on education committee approval as cumbersome, unpredictable and potentially unfair. In the Government's view responsibility should rest with the director of education, with a right of appeal to a small committee of senior councillors and officials. The Government says there will be further guidance on this proposal, and this should clarify what function, if any, the GTC will then have.

Daunting though the task may be, it should not be impossible to achieve a partnership of interests that acknowledges the responsibilities of those who provide education and recognises that it is not only the GTC which is the "guardian and protector".

John Dobie is an educational consultant whose final post in educational administration was acting director for Edinburgh.

18H Scotland Opinion TES april 30J 1999 THE TIMES EDUCATIONAL SUPPLEMENT Scott House, 10 South St Andrew Street,JEdinburgh EH2 2AZ Telephone Editorial 0131-557 1133;JAdvertising 0131-557 1144; Fax 0131-558 1155 E-mail muriel macleod platform

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