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So far so good, but it's only the first step

Gordon Kirk assesses the scope and impact of the new legislation that turns the GTC from gatekeeper to guardian.

THE Standards in Scotland's Schools Etc Bill makes provision for a range of changes to the General Teaching Council. That is reasonable. Improving standards in schools depends on the quality of teachers, and improving the quality of teaching depends, in turn, on the existence of an effective professional body.

The changes proposed are based closely on the independent and thorough review by Deloitte Touche, and they emerge from an encouragingly transparent consultation process. Now that the proposals are codified in legislative form, what are we to make of them? It is helpful to consider first the proposed changes in function before turning to those in composition and mode of operation.

There are five key extensions of powers. First, the GTC will be required to have regard to the public interest. Two principal functions are made explicit - to contribute to improving the quality of teaching and learning, and to maintain and improve standards of professional competence.

Moreover, it is stipulated that in discharging these functions "the council shall have regard to the interests of the public". It will do no harm for everyone to be reminded that the GTC is accountable not just to teachers, but also to a much wider constituency which includes children, parents and taxpayers.

Second, the council is to have an entitlement to remove from the register teachers who have been dismissed on grounds of incompetence. It will be for employers to dismiss a teacher who is incompetent: it will be for the GTC to decide whether the grounds are sufficiently serious as to warrant deregistration. That is a neat solution to the boundary dispute between the GTC and teachers' employers.

However, those of us who represented the GTC at a recent meeting with the Parliament's education, culture and sport committee were surprised to be pressed on the rights of parents to approach the council directly if the concerns they had about a particular teacher had not been completely allayed by the employer. That is an awkward issue, for it implies that a case could be brought to the attention of the GTC before dismissal or, indeed, even after an employer has expressly decided against dismissal.

Third, the GTC is to have an extended range of sanctions. It has always been limiting that it could only dispose of a case by deregistration, by deferring a decision for up to two years, or by taking no action at all. The Bill makes provision for "temporary suspension", "conditional registration", where a teacher may be restricted to teaching a specific age-group, or for a specified period, and the recording of a reprimand. These changes make obvious sense.

Fourth, given that the council already has to establish medical fitness at the point of entry to teaching, it is logical that it should have the authority to deregister ateacher whose medical condition justifies that decision, although that is not to disregard the sensitivities involved.

Finally, in response to years of campaigning, the GTC is to have a locus in continuing professional development (CPD). That role, however, will be restricted: it will have advisory functions relating to CPD, staff development and review, and it will have the authority to gather and disseminate information relating to CPD.

The GTC itself strongly argued for a role in accreditation but, regrettably, the Executive has been persuaded to accept the Deloitte Touche argument that it is inopportune to introduce this change. As things now stand, there is no means by which CPD provision is subject to any kind of professional scrutiny: that is unacceptable. On the positive side, the Bill gives ministers the authority to add to the council's powers.

Turning to the GTC's composition, a cardinal principle since its inception has been that it should have a majority of practising teachers. That majority has been retained: 25 out of the 49 will be elected teachers, apparently a majority of one. However, the four deans of faculties or departments of education are almost certain to be registered teachers.

What has occurred here is simply a change of categorisation. To all intents and purposes, the minimum number of registered teachers on the council will be 29. It is widely acknowledged also that the GTC should include others who have a direct involvement in the education service, for example, by making provision for a nomination from the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, and by ensuring that ministers' six nominations cover special educational needs, parents and industry and commerce.

Another change that may generate discussion is the stipulation that four of the 11 primary members should be heads, as should three of the 10 secondary members. The council is committed to a unitary profession and can show that it invariably secures a number of heads as members. The counter-argument is that, given their added responsibilities and their crucial leadership role in the education service, there should be formal recognition for heads as members of the GTC.

Finally, there are two changes relating to the GTC's mode of operation that will raise a few eyebrows. The first is the decision to disband the present council a year or so before it completes its term of office, and to have a new council installed by October 2001.

It is also disappointing to note, in a Bill that does a great deal for the GTC and therefore for teaching, that ministers are reserving the power to determine the composition of committees of the council to ensure that there is a reasonable balance of membership. It is an odd power to reserve in connection with a body that is intended to be self-regulating.

Professor Gordon Kirk is dean of the faculty of education, Edinburgh University, and vice-convener of the GTC.

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