Great idea, but a right royal muddle in practice

A Royal College of Teaching is a splendid idea: an independent body committed to improving the status and professional development of teachers that will also give them a professional voice and a greater say in policy issues.

Naturally, when it was first mooted many teachers clasped the concept lovingly to their collective bosom. The education community was rallied, consulted and surveyed and a blueprint for the college was set out.

This blueprint was launched in February in the middle of the school day, a somewhat puzzling move by an organisation purporting to represent the profession, prompting teacher John Blake to quip on Twitter: "I hope all the meetings of the Royal College of Teachers are held at 2pm on Mondays. I'll bring Year 9 with me."

Despite the initial flurry of enthusiasm for the idea, the shine is already beginning to wear off. A recent poll of 1,163 teachers commissioned by the Sutton Trust for the National Foundation for Educational Research found that 17 per cent opposed the plan and 41 per cent were unsure.

When teachers may already be members of a union, the prospect of shelling out for membership of another organisation - currently proposed at pound;30-130 a year - is unappealing. However, members of the NAHT headteachers' union overwhelmingly backed it at its annual conference earlier this month. Last week, too, the Heads' Roundtable thinktank called for the college to be implemented and for membership to be compulsory, making it sound suspiciously like a rerun of the General Teaching Council.

Awareness of the Royal College of Teaching is still low, but that's not the only problem it faces. It's top-down and is already looking unwieldy and costly. And if it's all about teachers, why are two groups exploring the proposals, a committee of teachers and a commission of senior individuals? Get that hierarchical language.

One of the most exciting teacher organisations in recent years has come from the grass roots. ResearchED, a self-funding organisation promoting research-led education, was started in 2013 by teacher Tom Bennett, with a little help from others. It has matured slowly, sprouting two popular regional events, and its second conference this autumn has even attracted the interest of the education secretary. This is teachers taking control of what they teach, giving each other voice and raising their own status.

And it is status that poses the biggest problem for the proposed college. A Royal College implies political impartiality and aligns teaching with other professions carrying that all-important prefix: the Royal College of Surgeons, Nursing, Obstetricians and General Practitioners (whose motto, Cum Scientia Caritas, or "compassion applied with knowledge", reversed wouldn't be half bad for teaching - "knowledge applied with compassion").

We know some unions object to the idea of a Royal College. The blueprint for the body - ironically being brokered by the Prince's Teaching Institute - ducks the issue entirely. Unfortunately it would seem that the battle has been lost before it has begun: all references in the blueprint and on the PTI website are simply to a College of Teaching, robbing it of its most distinguishing feature and sadly dooming it to failure.

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