Professionalism is not worth the candle

* 1986, I published a book with a chapter entitled "The False God of Professionalism". Its argument was that the concept of professionalism had become fundamentally incoherent because of a conflict of motivation between altruism and self-interest.

Professionals claim to act on the basis of ethical principle, usually described in terms of the public good, but are often more concerned with status, rewards and erecting barriers against "non-professionals". I further argued, with reference to education, that teachers had not been particularly well served by the ideal of professionalism, and that it had often been used by politicians and management as a device to pacify and control them.

Despite the elegance and persuasiveness of the case I advanced - not to mention its characteristic modesty - professionalism has continued to be seen as a worthy aspiration by all the major stakeholders in education.

From the founding of the Educational Institute of Scotland in 1847 to McCrone's vision of a teaching profession for the 21st century, the concept has been invoked with regularity. The frequency of its invocation, however, might be seen as evidence that there is a lack of conviction about its actual extent.

Moreover, professionalism is a highly malleable notion and subject to many different interpretations. For classroom teachers, for example, it is defined in terms of qualifications, experience and conditions of service.

They receive institutional support for this reading from the EIS and the General Teaching Council for Scotland. Teacher educators, on the other hand, like to focus on the reflective qualities of the extended professional who takes an interest in research, engages in critical dialogue with colleagues and perhaps belongs to a community of practice.

Recent commentators have suggested that, as a result of global pressures on educational systems, involving increased accountability and the imposition of politically-driven targets, the professionalism of teachers has been weakened - some even refer to "de-skilling" and "de-professionalisation".

They claim that teachers are now expected to follow directives from above with little opportunity to exercise personal judgement, far less influence policy decisions. Furthermore, they are highly sceptical about references in official documents to "empowering" teachers.

In response, some writers have argued for a new form of professionalism which seeks to redefine the position of teachers. Judyth Sachs, an Australian academic, contrasts "old professionalism" with what she calls "transformative professionalism". Whereas the former is conservative, reactive, exclusive and self-interested, the latter is inclusive, collaborative, progressive and, above all, activist in orientation.

In contrast to old professionalism, which "is often self-serving and inward-looking, insufficiently concerned with broad social and political issues", transformative professionalism "questions and criticises taken-for-granted practices and structures". Closer to home, it has been suggested that integrated community schools, with their requirement for multi-agency co-operation, offer opportunities for the forging of new professional identities through the sharing of knowledge and understanding by different occupational groups.

There is, however, a more radical alternative which, increasingly, I am inclined to favour. That is the abandonment of professionalism as an occupational ideal altogether. Professionalism is part of an outmoded class system, whereby limited social advancement is given to those who are prepared to play by establishment rules. It is also deeply protectionist in character, a feature that is especially evident in the legal profession.

Frankly, I don't want to be considered on a par with lawyers - I wouldn't wish to suffer the social embarrassment or experience the guilt by association. In the post-modern world, do we really need the dubious label "professional"?

Walter Humes is professor of education at Aberdeen University.

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