All we're left with is the monkey work

10th June 2011 at 01:00

If you want to insult a teacher, call him "unprofessional". In doing so you question his judgment and imply that his actions fall below the standard to be expected from someone in his position.

Teachers, in FE as elsewhere, are professionals. Or so we are told. Young and aspiring teachers are taught about this as part of their training. Whatever the qualification, you can be sure there will always be a module on what it means to be a "professional".

Our much maligned Institute for Learning (IfL) also leans heavily for its raison d'etre on the notion of teaching professionalism. One of the defining characteristics of a profession is self-regulation; so, says the IfL, here we are, your one-stop-shop for setting and enforcing professional standards.

Given this, it is a shame that its code of professional practice is such a dismal little document. It is about as appetising as cold soup, the recipe for which involves two parts banality for every one of the blindingly obvious. Here is a little taster: members should at all times "respect the rights of learners and colleagues". Now there's a thought. And in case the teacher has been in a coma for the past 30 years, the IfL's code helpfully reminds its members that they should not "discriminate in respect of race, gender, disability . sexual orientation or religion and belief".

Be that as it may, the overwhelming consensus is still that we are professionals. But are we? The words say we are, but what about the actions, the deeds? One of the key aspects of being a professional is autonomy. You have mastered a body of knowledge; now it is up to you - to your professional judgment - to apply that knowledge at work.

In reality, such decisions are increasingly being taken out of teachers' hands and given to others to make on their behalf. Take that most basic of pedagogical practices, how you teach. In an era when inspections and observations are increasingly ubiquitous, no one seriously believes that teaching should be left to the teachers any more. And woe betide any hapless lecturer who, on being observed, doesn't have a lesson plan packed to bursting with the latest methodological orthodoxies.

What has eroded teacher autonomy over the past 20 years are two separate but related phenomena: the rise of managerialism and the relentless flow of policies and directives. Thankfully the managers don't have to think up the policies themselves. FE doesn't have wall-to-wall quangos for nothing.

Consider, for instance, how teachers function as personal tutors. You may think that much of this would be governed by circumstance, with some students needing more and different intervention than others. But no. Gradually a curriculum has emerged. Some might call it a straightjacket - though that is not how they see it in quangoland.

And naturally there is a document to be adhered to. It is called the Independent Learning Plan. As it is a one-size-fits-all document, there is nothing very independent about it. But it is flavour of the month, so it has to be used. After all, you wouldn't want to leave it up to teachers' professional judgment, would you?

Even the minutiae of teacher behaviour is closely regulated. If an individual student wants to give me an expensive present two months into the course, I may work out that it would be inappropriate to accept it. If, on the other hand, a class shows its appreciation at the end of the year by clubbing together to buy me a bottle of plonk, you may think I would be churlish to refuse. But edicts don't do "churlish". Receiving gifts of any kind from students is unacceptable behaviour, according to the latest "code".

So, for professional teacher read house-trained baboon. Except that baboons at least receive bananas when they knuckle under.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a college in London.

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