'Unlike police officers, lecturers, doctors and nurses, teachers still don't have a career structure. Why?'

18th November 2014 at 11:00

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Tim Farron MP, president of the Liberal Democrats, writes:

It’s time to treat teachers as the professionals they are. We most certainly need a new College of Teaching, but the Conservatives must not make it into a political gimmick to appease a cheesed-off profession. It has to be led by teachers.

When I worked in education, I was reminded every day that teaching is – as well as being challenging – hugely rewarding and vitally important. Managing a classroom of 30 young people, engaging them in their learning and maintaining focus: if that’s not skilful, I don’t know what is. Research has made clear that a good teacher can add huge earning potential to a child’s future and, perhaps more importantly, set them on a path to happiness and personal fulfilment. On the opposite side of things, a bad teacher can have a damaging effect on children.

It staggers me that – unlike the civil service, the police force, university lecturing and medicine – teaching still doesn’t offer a proper career structure. We know this is one reason that ambitious young teachers leave the classroom, but also that some teachers take management roles they don’t really want – because it’s the only way of their pay going up.

The Liberal Democrats’ pre-manifesto, adopted at our conference this year, includes a commitment to a new, teacher-led College of Teaching. I strongly support the proposals being developed by the Prince’s Teaching Institute with the backing of the major unions and many educators across the UK.

Teachers don’t have enough representation in policy-making – why, for example, isn’t there a chief education officer advising the education secretary, similar to the chief medical and nursing officers in the health department? And there aren’t enough opportunities for teachers to be seconded in and out of government or Ofsted to make sure policy really is informed by practice.

Crucially, this college of teachers must not become a pet project of politicians or of unions. It must be led by teachers who are resourced and supported and who want to make our educational system the best in the world.

In Singapore, teachers can choose from three flexible and fulfilling career ‘pathways’ that enable them to develop their skills and responsibilities while increasing their pay. Singaporean teachers also get the developmental support they deserve, in the form of personal training budgets and an entitlement of 100 hours per year for professional development.

Lord Storey, a former headteacher, has also recommended that the college reintroduces a national qualification for headteachers and that the DfE, working with the Education Endowment Foundation, should establish a database of research into best practice worldwide, in a form that can readily be accessed by schools and teachers. Steps like these would arguably more than pay their way in the retention and motivation of teachers – and would show that we, like Singapore, take teaching and teachers seriously. 

There is a wider issue here. When this idea was proposed by the Commons education select committee in 2012, the response from teachers and education professionals came with a warning. Speaking to the BBC, James Westhead, of Teach First, said that it is not enough to create a new organisation. The College needs to be taken seriously. To do that, the College needs to have a coherent vision that can inspire its members, it needs to "build a brand, a reputation, an image and a reality that is unique, recognised and respected."

Similarly, Brian Lightman, the ASCL's general secretary said the biggest challenge is  "to win the hearts and minds of the teaching profession" and to convince teachers of its value and credibility.

So while I am glad that Nicky Morgan, the new education secretary, announced this week that the coalition government will introduce the Lib Dem policy of a new College of Teaching, part of my heart sank a little reading the coverage.  I really don’t want this idea to get tarnished as just another “charm offensive”.

It needs to be run by teachers, based on evidence of what works from here and abroad, and above all respected. If politicians treat it as a superficial act of appeasement, we will miss a great opportunity to give our teachers the status they deserve, and our children the education they need.

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