Scoundrels, conspiracies and professions

IT is sometimes suggested that professionalism, not patriotism, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Shaw wrote that "all professions are conspiracies against the laity".

Despite such acerbic comments, the appeal of professionalism as an occupational ideal has remained strong for Scottish teachers, not least among their representatives on the General Teaching Council for Scotland.

The GTC has been undertaking a consultation exercise on its Draft Professional Code for Registered Teachers. This is the second time it has produced such a document. A 1998 version drew up a list of "core values" (honesty, integrity, respect, care, competence, commitment) which had all the appeal of motherhood and apple pie, and failed to engage much interest.

The new document needs to be understood against the background of recent legislative changes extending the role of the GTC and post-McCrone developments affecting the induction of newly qualified teachers and their progression to full registration. As well as the draft professional code, a draft code of practice on teacher competence has also been produced.

The audience for these documents is presumably not only teachers themselves but parents who may have concerns about how their children are being taught. I understand the GTC has already had enquiries from parents who wish to complain about individual members of staff. Until the codes have been approved, the power of the council to investigate is limited. The potential implications for all teachers are considerable. One wonders whether the decision to follow the Scottish Executive's practice of holding consultation exercises during the summer vacation was deliberate.

Does the latest professional code have any more bite than its 1998 predecessor? Gone are the "core values". Instead an attempt is made to identify the "key areas of professionalism which underpin the council's work in maintaining and enhancing professional standards". Note the ritual invocation of "professional" and "professionalism" - terms that throughout the GTC's history have become a mantra which has escaped serious critical scrutiny.

The "key areas" are described under eight grammatically confused headings: expertise, collegiality, responsibility, legal framework, responsive to individual needs, discrimination, role model, professional relationships. What is missing is any attempt to address problematic areas such as the duty of professionals to speak out on matters of public interest - even if it goes against the wishes of those in authority. Should a professional code which is concerned to uphold fundamental principles not say something about whistle-blowing? Instead it takes a cautious line, recommending "appropriate recognised procedures" for pursuing a grievance.

Underlying all of this is the protean character of the word "profession" and its derivatives. It is a term that can be mobilised in various ways for different purposes. Sometimes it is used in an altruistic sense to emphasise service to clients and assurance of high standards. At other times it serves self-interested impulses concerned with status and exclusivity. There is also the managerial invocation of professionalism - when teachers show signs of militancy: they are told such action is "unprofessional".

In everyday staffroom discourse, conduct described as "unprofessional" often signifies little more than the personal disapproval of the speaker. Professionalism as social conformity is a weak and unworthy notion. What is required is an honest recognition of the fact that it is an evolving and contested concept, which invites interrogation.

To be fair to the GTC, there is a promise that the draft professional code will be kept under review and subject to amendment. It's just a pity that the starter document is so tame.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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