Models of good form?

Scandal and recriminations have dogged at least two professional regulatory bodies lately, so what lessons can be learned by the new General Teaching Council, asks Richard Willis.

IN the mid-19th century, the General Medical Council and the Law Society were heralded by teachers as the examples to emulate in establishing a regulatory council for the teaching profession. Now, 150 years later, the Government has brought in legislation to pave the way for the opening of a General Teaching Council for England that begins work on September 1.

This innovation comes at a time in the medical profession when the "consultant is king" culture dominates and amid cries that the GMC should be abolished.

Such recriminations follow the sentencing of Harold Shipman, the GP found guilty of murdering at least 15 patients, and the cases of gynaecologists, Rodney Ledward and Richard Neale, both found to be grossly incompetent for botching operations over many years. The daily exposure by the media of medical errors continues and such incidents show that the GMC has failed to end a sequence of protracted tragedy.

Yet it is not just with the medics that self-regulation has lately been called into question. The Law Society is also facing problems that go against the grain of its past record and achievements. The society's ruling council has been described as an "irrelevant, slow-moving anachronism". The lawyers' regulatory body is criticised for being indecisive, unrepresentative and accused of failing to voice properly the views of solicitors.

Carol Adams and David Puttnam, the GTC's leaders, are determined that the council should raise the status of teachers and uphold professional standards. But, in the aftermath of the latest health service scandals and the failure of the Law Society to deliver, what hope is there for the teaching profession?

Ms Adams and Lord Puttnam reflect some of the aspirations originally put forward by the GMC but can any lessons be learned from the present debacle in the health sector? Much of the debate suggests that while the two professions share common characteristics, doubts are raised about the feasibility of applying the medical model for registration to the teachers' one.

Both doctors and teachers possess a skill based on theoretical and practical knowledge, they train to practise and a regulatory body is expected to test the competence of members.

But does teaching incompetence have fewer harmful effects than the life threatening mistakes made by doctors? A teacher's inability to instruct a class, where the ppils themselves could be unwilling to learn, must rank below cases of negligence in gynaecology, wrongly administered spinal injections or errors in prescribing drugs.

Can teachers be expected to report their colleagues when things go wrong as doctors and nurses are now supposed to do? Each pupil, more-over, cannot possibly receive the teacher's undivided attention and it is only in teaching with the frequency of school classes and the long time-span of pupils' contact with teachers that the practitioner's frailty and foibles are open to constant critical appraisal.

For teachers, the key issue now concerns the Government's reluctance to allow teachers effective control of their profession. Ministers in former administrations repeatedly rejected the idea as they no doubt feared that a council could lead to a super union with a preoccupation to attack government educational policy.

On the other hand, the GTC should avoid the dangers of a high degree of self regulation and freedom from external control. This might be an unrealistic outcome but it is an area where the GMC and the Law Society have failed. A GTC committed to over-cautious practices and having an overbearing supervisory regime would inevitably be a step in the wrong direction. Teachers would also grow to resent a council determined to implement an increased monitoring of their performance.

On a more upbeat note, the Law Society has recently adopted a new corporate plan with the aim of securing a more outward-looking approach and achieving more focus on the needs of its members - many of whom have complained that the ruling body has been out of touch. This is something the GTC should take notice of. In the meantime the onslaught on the GMC by the media is resulting in reforms in the regulation of practitioners within the health service, such as the national mandatory system to report all errors and "near-misses".

Many of these issues are complex with far-reaching consequences and there is little doubt that the GTC is taking part in an activity fraught with dangers.

Some lessons can be learned from the medical and legal examples. Above all, the GTC needs to reflect and represent the views of the teaching profession, to ensure that grossly incompetent teachers are not able to teach again, and to introduce effective regulatory mechanisms to set in motion an engine for change and a powerful driving force aimed at benefiting society at large.

Richard Willis is a research fellow at the University of Surrey, Roehampton, and law librarian for the Halliburton Group

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