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The early days of the professional body for teachers have been marked by timidity and widespread criticism of its effectiveness. So with teacher elections due, has it proved its worth? The jury's still out, writes Fran Abrams

In March this year, 30 months after its inception, the new professional body for teachers took a major step. For the first time in England, a teacher was struck off by his peers for failing to meet expected standards.

The General Teaching Council for England seemed reluctant to talk up its achievement, though. Gail Mortimer, the chairwoman of the committee that heard Mark Parnham's case, was far from expansive. "His actions fall short of the standards expected of a registered teacher. We are entirely satisfied that he is guilty of unprofessional conduct," she told the media.

If the offence had been less grave, her understatement would have been laughable. For Mr Parnham's "unprofessional conduct" had consisted of beating his wife, Jillian, also a teacher, to death with a metal bar after discovering she was having an affair with another member of staff at their Sussex school.

The episode spoke volumes about the GTCE, which has just advertised for new members to stand for election when its first four-year term ends next August; nominations close on December 15. The council was given four major roles - to keep a register of teachers, to discipline those who failed to meet its standards, to advise ministers on policy and to raise the national status of the profession. But it has been forced to spend much of its first three years trying to convince teachers of its worth. Any powerful statement that might promote public confidence at the risk of offending the profession has been studiously avoided.

Mark Parnham is the only teacher to have been permanently removed from the register. Since January 2002, the council has completed 44 full disciplinary hearings, 36 of which have led to action. Among those allowed to continue teaching with restrictions were teachers guilty of serious assault, theft, accessing pornography on a school computer and impersonating a priest. A deputy head who was found drinking vodka in the school boiler house was banned from teaching for two years. In total, less than one hundredth of 1 per cent of England's 445,000 practising teachers have had to be disciplined, while in Wales, no disciplinary case has yet been proven. In Scotland, which has had a General Teaching Council for more than 30 years, there have been 289 disciplinary referrals over the past year, compared with 100 in England in three years.

Champions of the GTCE say this is good news for teachers; all but a tiny proportion are doing their jobs well, they point out. But comparisons with other professions suggest that some cases must be slipping through the net, particularly as local authorities have a duty to refer all teacher sackings to the council. The Solicitors' Disciplinary Tribunal, for example, has held 214 hearings in the past year, all of which have led to disciplinary action. That represents a quarter of 1 per cent of all registered solicitors - 25 times the proportion of teachers dealt with by the GTCE.

As the Parnham case shows, the GTCE's decisions are not given a high profile. There is no comprehensive list of conditionally disqualified staff on its website - again, in contrast to the solicitors' body. The presence of the teacher is not required at the hearings and, as in the two most recent cases (TES, November 14), they are frequently absent and without representation. Employers are sent bulletins of cases, but there has been no attempt to publicise the fact that schools and the public can check a teacher's status by ringing a helpline. The General Teaching Council for Wales, by contrast, says its cases will eventually be listed on its website.

The GTCE's approach has surprised many. Geoffrey Negus, spokesman for the regulatory arm of the Law Society, says openness is vital if the public is to have confidence in any profession. "It's important that you can trust solicitors because you must entrust your money to them," he says. "Surely with teachers it is doubly important because you entrust your children to them."

Some of those who have had close dealings with the GTCE believe its timidity betrays a contradiction at its heart: it must win public trust, but it cannot even begin to do so until it wins teachers' trust. And that has been a fraught process. "I think they were terrified of their role from the start," says one observer. "They confused their function with that of the unions, and they tried to become the teacher's friend. They were afraid teachers would see them as just one more thing imposed by the Government with which to beat them."

Unrest among teachers coalesced around the issue of the council's pound;23 annual fee - to such an extent that at one point the GTCE was fielding up to 18,000 irate calls a day. The row was defused only when the Government agreed to meet the cost - tiny by comparison with the pound;700 fee paid by solicitors - by adding it to teachers' pay packets. And even now, only half of all practising teachers have agreed to pay voluntarily by direct debit, with most of the rest having the sum, now set at pound;28 a year, deducted at source from their pay.

The council's internet noticeboards continue to attract critical comments.

"It seems to me the GTCE is having no impact. In fact, apart from taking our money against our consent I cannot find one indication of anything about my profession that the GTCE is in any way improving, developing or even upholding," one correspondent writes. Another, Bob Vant, said he was frustrated by the council's failure even to answer his queries about its activities. He said Tony Blair had described the teaching profession as a "vested interest" that must be confronted, and asked: "What is the council doing to counteract such damaging remarks?" When the GTCE eventually answered, it said it was not the council's function to interpret the Prime Minister's views or to ask him to explain them.

Mr Vant, who retired in the summer after 25 years as a history teacher, says the new body did nothing to enhance his last years in the profession.

"I didn't notice anything different," he says. "They set out to say, 'we're listening', but that wasn't my experience. They were given a chance to prove the council wasn't going to be a lapdog, and they bottled it."

In an attempt to counteract such scepticism the council has expended a great deal of energy in talking to the teaching profession. It has held meetings around England, and council members and officials believe the initiative is working.

But some also believe their real work has been delayed while this process has gone on. Christine Gale, who represents the National Governors' Council on the GTCE, says real progress has been made only in the past year to 18 months. "The first two years were difficult because of the row about the fees. Certainly, in teachers' minds, that overshadowed everything else.

That was sad because it delayed some of the work that could have been started sooner," she says.

In Wales, there was no such row. The fee was deducted from teachers'

salaries from the start, and 99.9 per cent of teachers have registered with the council. Ironically, the English council is starting to experience the opposite problem. While around 20,000 registered teachers have still not paid up, even more remain on the register despite having left teaching.

Such trifles would cease to matter, though, if the council - with an annual budget of pound;12.5 million - was fulfilling its objective of raising the profile and status of the profession. But so far it has made little impact.

In its first three years the General Teaching Council was mentioned just 149 times in English national newspapers, while the Law Society was mentioned 2,696 times in the same period. The National Union of Teachers continues to be a more frequent port of call for the media when they are seeking a comment on an education issue; it scored 757 media "hits" in the same period.

At first the unions were suspicious of the GTCE, fearing it was trying to act as a rival organisation, but they clearly believe it is no longer a threat. The NUT's head of education, John Bangs, says that after a rocky start the council is making good progress. "It's relaxed and now understands it can't survive without a productive partnership with the unions," he says. But he says the notion that the council can raise the status of the profession is "hopelessly optimistic".

"What will raise the status of teaching," he says, "is the Government getting off teachers' backs and listening to their professional voices. As for the council, the bottom line is that teachers still have to be convinced of its purpose, but as a union our national relationship with it is very positive."

When it comes to achieving the council's central aim - ensuring teachers are regarded as a profession rather than as a workforce - almost all those involved believe the job will be a long haul. John Tomlinson, a former chief education officer and professor of education, who campaigned for years for the establishment of a general teaching council and who was the GTCE's first chairman, believes it will be "the work of a generation". He says: "The building up of professional confidence of the right kind is going to take time, particularly in the climate of the past 20 years, where teachers have been made to feel like soldiers under the direction of sergeants and officers."

Others, including the London schools commissioner, Tim Brighouse, who sat briefly on the GTCE, agree with him. Mr Brighouse believes a lack of power is at the root of the council's difficulties; he has argued it should take over the Teacher Training Agency. "They've made a good fist of the hand they were dealt, but they could have been dealt a better one," he says. "If you trust a profession you should start from the premise that they are a body of professionals and ask not what they should be involved in, but what there is that they should not be involved in."

Carol Adams, the GTCE's chief executive, robustly defends the council's performance. She is open about its reluctance to publicise its disciplinary role. "We believe this is such a tiny minority of the teaching profession and we don't want to indulge in the exaggerated publicity these things lead to," she says. "All those who need to know have full information."

She is also pleased with the Government's response to the council's work in advising it on educational issues, pointing to areas such as continuing professional development and teacher retention as success stories.

She admits, though, that a great deal of work remains to be done in giving teachers a more positive public profile. "We need to reach out much more widely to governors and parents," she says. "We have an awful lot to do, but the council doesn't necessarily react and make a statement on everything. What we try to do is to work with the profession to put forward what we think are the big issues for teachers."

Despite recent signs of progress, the fulfilment of the confident vision of the council's first chairman, Lord Puttnam, still seems a long way off.

"Teachers," he said three years ago, "have the ability not just to alter this country for the better but to actually secure its future. No other sector of the population can do that. In a couple of years' time, the teaching profession can decide if this was a brilliant idea or a mistake."

If you want to check a teacher's registration status or have any other query, call the GTCE helpline: 0870 0010308

Our first two years were difficult because of the row about the fees. In teachers' minds that overshadowed everything else. Christine Gale

The bottom line is that teachers still have to be convinced of its purpose, but our relationship with it is very positive. John Bangs

Building up professional confidence of any kind is going to take time, particularly in the climate of the past 20 years. John Tomlinson

We have an awful lot to do, but the council doesn't necessarily react and make a statement on everything. Carol Adams

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