A ticking time bomb may derail reforms
There is a time bomb ticking away at the heart of the Teaching and Higher Education Bill. It is a time bomb which has the capacity to derail all the coaches which comprise the Government's educational reforms, and to render unattainable the universally-desired destination of a dramatic improvement in standards.
The issue, however, is not the high-profile dispute about students' fees, contentious though that may be. The time bomb is that of the Government's current proposals for a General Teaching Council.
The council should represent one of the key "good news" stories of this Parliament. The principle is not new, and indeed there has been a GTC in Scotland since 1965.
Surveys in recent years show that a considerable majority of teachers support the extension of the principle to the rest of the country. A GTC Company (England and Wales), chaired by Professor John Tomlinson and supported by the teacher unions and other interested groups (including parents) has been preparing the way.
Draft bills have been drawn up, support canvassed from across the political spectrum, and hundreds of thousands of leaflets distributed to teachers and parents across the land.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been firmly committed to the introduction of a GTC, while recent debates in the House of Lords indicate that even some former Conservative ministers who resisted the proposal while in office may have become converts to the cause. It is an idea whose time has surely come.
What, then, is the problem? Put simply, it is that the Bill envisages deducting money from teachers' pay to fund a GTC which, in terms of its composition and functions, has all the appearance of being simply another creature of Government.
Although the body is to be called a General Teaching Council, teachers are not even guaranteed to be in a majority. Instead the composition is to be determined by the Secretary of State, who is only required under the Bill to have regard to the need to reflect the interests of teachers, their employers, their trainers, the public, "and such other interests as in the opinion of the Secretary of State will enable the council to carry out (its) functions more effectively".
The council is not even guaranteed the right to appoint its own chairman, while the Secretary of State "shall appoint the (council's) first chief officer who shall be employed on such terms and conditions as the Secretary of State may determine".
A similar approach has been adopted towards functions. There is widespread agreement that a General Teaching Council should not be directly concerned with such issues as contracts or conditions of employment, teachers' pay or pensions. But it should have the prime professional responsibility for such matters as:
* establishing the standards of fitness to teach;
* recognising, registering and debarring teachers;
* agreeing and applying codes of conduct;
* providing guidance on good professional practice, and;
* supplying accurate information about teaching as a profession.
It should also be the major body to advise government, local authorities and others on: initial education and training; good practice for the induction of teachers; professional development and retraining; enabling re-entry into the profession; ensuring the future supply of teachers. The current Bill has no such list of responsibilities.
Indeed, it appears that the proposed GTC will essentially be a registration body. Additionally, it will provide advice to the Secretary of State on specified issues, and "such other persons or bodies as he may from time to time designate. . . as they think fit"; and on these and other matters but only "as he may from time to time require".
The restricted nature of this agenda is made all the more evident by the wider remit envisaged for the proposed separate GTC for Wales. This includes the undertaking of activities designed to promote recruitment to the teaching profession and the continuing professional development of teachers, albeit again as required to do so by the Secretary of State.
Why has this happened? Why has the Government so misread the situation? One reason is that insufficient attention has been paid to the 450 responses received to the consultation paper, Teaching: High Status, High Standards - the General Teaching Council. These responses show a virtually unanimous support for the creation of a GTC.
They also demonstrate general support for a council which, while representative of a broad range of interests, would have a majority of serving teachers. They further envisage the need for a council with real powers - in such areas as setting standards for the initial training of teachers and their continuing professional development, and barring unsatisfactory staff.
A more fundamental reason for the Government's misjudgment, and a possible explanation of why evidence from the consultation process has been ignored, is that the Government (perhaps understandably) is still wary that the GTC might become a super-union, more concerned with the advancement of teachers' rights and benefits than with those of education as a whole.
Its strategy, therefore, appears to be to establish a GTC, but to deprive it of the composition and powers which any GTC worthy of the name must have. This strategy is bound to fail. A GTC devoid of any real credibility or function will surely suffer the same ignominious fate as befell the similarly toothless Teachers' Registration Council, established in the early years of the 20th century. It will arouse, and deserve, the hostility of teachers; it will provoke the dismay of those parental and other organisations which have become such firm supporters of the GTC movement.
The Government must have the courage of its former convictions. Having cogently argued the case for a proper GTC while in opposition, in office it must remain true to those principles. The time bomb must be quickly defused.
Professor Richard Aldrich is a director of the GTC Company (England and Wales).