A chance for teachers to sing with one voice

12th December 2014 at 00:00
With Nicky Morgan lending her support to a College of Teaching, we are finally close to having our own powerful professional body

Moments of constructive consensus are rare, and perhaps the most unusual are moments of politically constructive consensus. The teaching profession is enjoying such a moment.

In 2012, all three main parties agreed with the Education Select Committee's recommendation that quality in the profession would be improved by having a College of Teaching.

Initial discussions referred to this body as a Royal College of Teaching, but applying to use the word "royal" in the title is a separate process from getting a royal charter. It will be up to the members of any future body to decide whether or not to request this name, the granting of which is strictly controlled by royal prerogative.

Regardless of whether the college ends up as "royal", this week's announcement of support by education secretary Nicky Morgan and schools minister David Laws is very good news.

Although the royal college model is best known in medicine, it has parallels in the chartered institutes run by groups as diverse as engineers and probation officers. Issuing royal charters to licence membership organisations to regulate and recognise the highest standards of professional practice goes back to the Victorians. New charters are still being petitioned for, and granted. These include the recently formed Royal College of Emergency Medicine, and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which has been in existence for some time but has only recently achieved chartered status.

So why do professional groups value membership organisations with the power to grant chartered status? And why would this benefit teaching, and teachers?

Because such bodies enhance the status of their members through qualification. They set high standards of practice, and require their members to follow a professional code of conduct and act ethically. They can promote their profession to young people. They encourage the sharing of best practice by bringing like-minded professionals together. Their ultimate purpose is to act for the common good, in this case ensuring the best possible outcomes for learners.

By the people, for the people

In its purest form, a college is run and regulated by and for its members. That makes it very different from the General Teaching Councils (which still operate in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, although the English one was axed by Michael Gove). For one thing, a college cannot be dismantled by Whitehall, nor can it be forced to take on roles or responsibilities that its members are not prepared to shoulder. Membership cannot be mandated nor fees deducted at source.

A College of Teaching would offer an independent voice. Its own members would draw up a code of conduct and set the standards that must be met to achieve chartered status. As a professional body, it would be self-governing, setting its own rules and holding its own members to account if they did not perform to the required standard. From that rigour and consistency would come trust and respect for the profession. From that respect would come the authority to engage on an equal footing with policymakers and politicians when they pronounced on what and how teachers should teach.

Inevitably the main writ of a College of Teaching would apply to those working in compulsory schooling. But it should not stop there. Its membership should embrace all those who work in fields that inform and practice teaching, including those who research learning and related disciplines such as psychology, sociology and development. From this diversity would come strength. The professional opinions and positions that would emerge would be more robust. It would be that much harder to dismiss them as self-interested.

Despite the growing consensus among thought leaders and bodies that represent teachers, such as unions, professional associations and learned societies, some doubt remains about whether teachers would be prepared to join a College of Teaching - in particular, whether they would be ready to pay an annual fee. Three surveys - by the Prince's Teaching Institute, the Sutton Trust and TES - suggest that about 80 per cent of teachers support or are interested in the formation of such a body. In particular, they want an independent organisation to present their position clearly in the gale of policy change that has blown through schools over the past several decades.

Taking back control

The extent to which government micromanages teaching today is unprecedented; decisions on policy lack a solid evidence base. Schools can employ entirely unprepared teachers, there is an almost scripted set of lesson designs and the success of a school is judged entirely on the grades of students.

Compared with some of the school systems our politicians admire - in Finland and Singapore, for example - teachers have less professional development, our curriculum emphasises subject knowledge over the development of the whole child and even the youngest children suffer a long-hours culture. Teacher assessment of students is not trusted - external tests are seen as the only way to measure the effectiveness of schools and pupils' learning.

How has this come about? One reason that the teaching profession has been routinely sidelined - teacher education reduced to teacher training, curriculum design taken over by policymakers, high-stakes assessment entirely external to schools, the need for qualified teacher status abolished - is the failure of the profession to speak with a single voice. A College of Teaching could change that.

We have an advantage, in that a royal charter already exists to cover the professional development of teachers. That charter has been in the custodianship of the College of Teachers, of which I am chief executive, since 1849. We now have an opportunity to form a fit-for-purpose College of Teaching by re-formulating the charter under the guidance of a new set of trustees drawn from the most trusted members of the education community.

We have, over the next handful of months, the best chance to finally make it happen. It's something that all of us, whatever our political complexion, can do to lift our young people's quality of learning - a step forward, not just for another Parliament or the next academic term, but for generation after generation of future teachers and learners. The question for the teaching profession is whether enough individuals want to support this move. Are we ready to take responsibility for our destiny and invest in our own future?

Angela McFarlane is chief executive of the College of Teachers. To find out more and have your say, contribute to the Claim Your College blog or the College of Teaching Twitter stream


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