Doug McAvoy explains why, and how, we must ensure that teachers are able to develop their professional skills
There are two good reasons why teachers' professional development should be given the very highest priority in the forthcoming White Paper.
The first is obvious. The Government's education programme rests, above all, on the motivation, skills and knowledge of Britain's teachers. Tony Blair appeared to recognise this fact during the election campaign when he said, "If our teachers are demotivated, our children suffer."
The second reason flows from the first. The unfortunate truth is that the Government may well be relying on out-of-date mechanisms for organising professional development that are simply not up to the job.
After all, it is 25 years since the James Report on teacher education was published. There is now a pressing need for the Government to commission an independent inquiry into continuing professional development (CPD). In effect, we need a new James Report.
There was an enormous optimism about the importance of teacher education in the early 1970s. Professionalism was defined as the ability of teachers themselves to take responsibility for professional development. Indeed, teachers' centres, which were promoted by the Schools Council and successfully developed up and down the country, were set up on the principle that "each school should have the fullest possible measure of responsibility for its own work".
Despite these positive moves, however, the National Union of Teachers argued at the time that local education authorities had made "almost no attempt to assess the needs of teachers, no attempt to set objectives and no attempt to evaluate how successfully these objectives have been fulfilled".
The James Committee had been equally critical of the organisation of teacher education, concluding that it was vital, "to set up appropriate machinery to identify (training) needs and to co-ordinate arrangements to meet them".
Both the NUT and the James Committee, however, agreed with the idea of continuing professional development for teachers based on a structure of qualifications, and both proposed a national advisory council on in-service education.
There was, though, an important difference between then and now. The James Committee believed that teachers themselves had to be at the centre of professional development, whether alongside Government in any national advisory committee or in the organisation of teachers' centres.
So, while it is true that a "golden age" for professional development never really existed, a great deal has been lost over the past 18 years.
The problems identified a quarter of a century ago are still there, but have been compounded by much-reduced opportunities for teachers.
For example, it is now very rare to find teachers' centres - if they exist at all - that are not simply bases for LEA support and quality assurance services. Secondments for one-term and one-year courses are virtually extinct, despite James's recommendations that they should be increased.
Indeed, the problems identified then have simply been shifted from the LEA to school level, as the Teacher Training Agency itself confirmed. In its recent review of teacher education, it remarked: "Continuing professional development currently in place in most schools appears to operate on an ad hoc basis. "
Once again, the idea of national training priorities did not emerge out of a thorough audit of teachers' training needs. And there does not seem to be a link between the cost and operational implications of the qualifications framework proposed by the TTA and the realities of school organisation.
For example, what if all the teachers in a particular school want to become "expert teachers"? What if none does? Are non-expert teachers less skilled? Will those who have acquired expert teacher qualifications be expected to remain for a minimum period in their original schools? Substitute "expert" with "advanced skills teacher", and the questions remain the same.
And what about the teacher appraisal scheme? The Department for Education and Employment, the Office for Standards in Education and the TTA have all reviewed it.
Described by the DFEE as suffering an "implementation dip", the reality is that for most schools the current scheme is dead in the water. The removal of its funding saw to that. But its original purpose - that of identifying professional development routes - remains valid.
A reincarnation of appraisal, however, based on a quasi-capability procedures model, or linking performance with pay, would be considered a Frankenstein's monster by teachers - and treated as such.
Indeed, any approach that linked CPD qualifications with salary recognition would fundamentally undermine the principle of professional development for all.
In particular, such a link would arbitrarily narrow the availability of CPD to what was affordable in terms of extra salary costs.
The Government is about to launch its education action zones initiative in order to support schools in disadvantaged areas. If this policy is to work, the Government must understand that a punitive approach to quality assurance, such as naming failing schools, is unlikely to be effective.
Far more successful would be to place teachers' professional development at the heart of the new requirement that LEAs should produce development plans.
Only now are LEAs beginning to realise that it is vital to act fast and early when problems appear. Reliance on OFSTED to identify the need for support has meant that problems have been unaddressed for too long.
The recent hitlist of 18 schools was absolutely pointless since it was the previous Government's quality assurance system that had failed, and part of that failure was to discourage LEAs from co-ordinating and targeting professional development.
Any meaningful review of professional development must also face up to a wider problem. Although most teachers, when asked, say that CPD is useful, there is evidence that repeated cutbacks in provision has led to a downgrading in its importance in the eyes of many teachers.
For example, the NUT's report from Strathclyde University, Schools speak for themselves (1996) found that all participants in the study placed staff development as the fifth-lowest in the order of priorities in importance for schools.
This is partly because CPD entirely lacks an ethos; a set of intentions that will restore to teachers a way of adding value to their professional skills and understanding. Currently, teachers do not feel there is any point in exploring new ways of teaching if they do not conform to the objectives of an increasingly didactic framework.
Clearly, the importance of "ownership" by teachers of their own professional development is vital. It is the most powerful trigger we have for increasing their motivation and capacity for innovation.
So, in advance of the White Paper, I offer some thoughts on certain elements that would be crucial in any new framework.
* Professional development must be seen as an integral and consistent part of every teacher's working life.
* All teachers should have equal opportunities for professional development.
* School development plans should address teachers' professional and long-term career needs, as well as short-term institutional priorities.
* A self-evaluation approach - both at the individual and at the collective level - should be adopted for identifying professional development needs.
* Teachers and their organisations must be a part of any new approach to CPD. Nationally, a general teaching council should be established to advise the TTA and the Government on the education and supply of teachers.
* The use of grants for educational support and training should be reviewed, in order to establish more consistent support to LEAs and schools.
* A closer relationship should be promoted between teachers and research - possibly with the establishment of a national research forum inside the GTC.
* LEAs should direct and co-ordinate CPD.
* Newly qualified teachers should be entitled to properly funded, high-quality induction.
Above all, teaching remains, fundamentally, an intensive exchange between teachers and their pupils. This is something that previous governments forgot - and I hope it is something that the current Government remembers.
Doug McAvoy is general secretary of the National Union of Teachers