Give the council a fighting chance

Its website is steeped in worthy objectives and corporate plans, but how effective has the General Teaching Council for Wales been? What are its successes and failings? Now in its sixth year, has the GTCW really won the hearts and minds of the ordinary teacher?

The GTCW opened its doors in 2001. Its own detailed statistics show a healthy teaching profession in Wales, and that only 50 teachers with less than five years' teaching experience left the profession during 2004. And that indeed is an improvement on its English counterpart.

Of course, the GTCW hierarchy assumes that the contribution of its council is central to such an achievement.

Hayden Llewellyn, deputy chief executive, is also quick to point out other significant developments, including the council's Assembly government-funded professional development programme, which has seemingly benefited more than 20,000 teachers.

The GTCW also managed to escape the media onslaught - mainly over registration fees - suffered by its sister organisation in England, after it was set up in 2000. But while the Welsh council is a smaller and more manageable unit, there has been the odd glitch which has resulted in criticism.

There was, for example, the claim that paperwork and staff shortages could have been the reasons behind the uneven take-up of financial help for continuing professional development. Few teachers access this funding, and clearly the considerable bureaucracy has been a disincentive for teachers to come forward.

Meanwhile, a postcode mix-up resulted in 12 teachers from the same area in north Wales being sent the wrong registration details.

The English GTC admittedly faced more serious problems after the National Union of Teachers found that the English council infringed the Data Protection Act when it attempted to collect teachers' addresses for a database. But conflict between the GTCW and the teacher unions has also been a feature of the council's work.

The unions have tried to increase their representation on the GTCW, and consultations on such a move close next week. Yet the battle over composition has dogged the registration debate since the 1860s, when the endowed schools' lobby in Westminster voted against legislative proposals for a council and register as the endowed school teachers did not want to be represented along with private school teachers.

Pleas for greater representation aside (an issue that will figure as long as general teaching councils continue to function), teachers in Wales have clear and succinct views on the value and effectiveness of the GTCW. They are neither in sympathy with its aims and directives nor approve of much of its work.

It seems that the GTCW is as disliked as its English counterpart. Teachers resent having to pay the annual subscription of pound;32. They consider that the GTCW is unnecessary and simply a burden on salaries, with no apparent gain for the profession.

In the absence of tangible and material benefits, the profession across the UK is quick to denounce the merits of a body that simply advises politicians. By its focus on such loose priorities as working to improve morale, teachers feel that expenditure on helping to improve status and on developing high professional standards is a waste of time.

But whatever their grievances, teachers should remember that targets for improvement and solidarity are worthy objectives.

The right to have a council and a register, like the right to vote in general elections, can be traced back to mid-19th century Britain, as many battles were fought in Parliament in the effort to achieve self-governance for the profession by our Victorian ancestors.

The establishment of the GTCW in 2001 promised improved status and solidarity. Such ideals do not guarantee a quick fix to all our problems, but teachers should support a climate of change that ultimately will benefit both teaching and society.

Richard Willis is senior research fellow in the faculty of education at Roehampton university and author of the book The Struggle for the General Teaching Council (RoutledgeFalmer, 2005)

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