Are we a profession at last?

6th May 2005 at 01:00
THE STRUGGLE FOR THE GENERAL TEACHING COUNCIL. By Richard Willis. Routledge Falmer pound;24.99

How far can teaching be regarded as a profession?It's a question that has long exercised the minds of educationists. One of the hallmarks of professionalism is self-regulation: doctors have the General Medical Council and solicitors the Law Society. This excellent book, dealing almost exclusively with the English context, successfully explores many of the problems that have impeded the securing of self-regulation for teachers.

It may come as a surprise to learn that the earliest attempts to set up a body that might achieve this aim, the College of Preceptors, initially dealt exclusively with private schools where, as one reformer remarked, "the public cannot generally detect the quack". The college campaigned for a teachers' council and a register as early as 1846; later, it set examinations for its members and promoted the idea of training facilities.

Dealing exclusively with the secondary sector, the College of Preceptors was hostile to elementary school teachers. Like later bodies, it suffered from the refusal of governments to grant financial assistance.

One of the most interesting features of this study is the description of the tensions that have existed between the different interest groups during the past 150 years: for instance, the bitter and successful opposition of endowed school headmasters to the section of the 1869 Endowed Schools Bill, which would have founded an educational council, the inspection of pupils and a register. The rise of the teachers' associations from the 1870s and inter-union rivalry, especially between the National Union of Teachers and the Headmasters' Conference, slowed down progress towards self-regulation.

A series of registration bills, put forward by the college in the last quarter of the 19th century, failed to get through Parliament.

A change of climate seemed possible when a consultative committee of the newly formed Board of Education was established in 1900. Part of its remit was to set regulations for a register of teachers, supervised by a Teachers' Registration Council. Although the council functioned for the next 28 years, it is easy to see why it failed. Separate registers were kept for elementary and secondary teachers; the consultative committee was jealous of a rival body; and the Board of Education, under the secretaryship of Robert Morant, was determined to retain control over the profession. Starved of funds and with only voluntary registration, the council was renamed the Royal Society of Teachers. It called for qualified teachers in schools and was generally accepted as an expression of the desire for unity in the profession; some two-thirds of teachers joined, but by the Second World War it had foundered on the Board of Education's indifference.

The final chapter brings the story up to date. Although Scotland had set up its own General Teaching Council in 1965, in England successive secretaries of state from Labour and Conservative governments were indifferent to a parallel body being established. The Campaign for a general teaching council, set up after the 1979 general election, had to contend with an era of greater central governmental control of education. In 1990, Labour pledged to introduce legislation for a general council. Eight years later, the Teaching and Higher Education Act set up such a body and a register for England, with a separate council for Wales. From its inception in 2000, the General Teaching Council of England, which consists of 64 representatives of teachers, teacher unions, the major representative bodies and secretary of state nominees, has carried out its main function of imposing high standards of professional practice and conduct.

Willis clearly demonstrates some of the problems that confront the GTCE. As with previous registration bodies, the budget is limited, and there is concern that it might become another government department if overbureaucratised. Questions have also been raised about whether the GTCE is truly representative of the profession.

A major issue that waits resolution is the council's relationship to the Teacher Training Agency, which was set up in 1994 to improve the quality and efficiency of routes into the teaching profession, including initial teacher training. While the TTA implements government policy, the GTCE acts only in an advisory capacity. Nevertheless, the council's expertise in such areas as professional development, retention and career development, as well as in carrying out its disciplinary function (it heard its 100th case in March), make it a useful and independent forum for teachers. This book can unreservedly be recommended as a contribution to the history of the evolution of the teaching profession and of English educational policy-making.

Peter Gordon is emeritus professor of education at the Institute of Education, University of London

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