Stephen Dorrell thinks teachers, like doctors and nurses, should be constantly on the look-out for what works in education and prepared to ditch methods that are not effective.
This, he believes, would do more than anything else to rebuild teachers' status and morale.
"Why has the teaching profession been so backward in developing the concept of professionalism?" the shadow education and employment secretary asked at a fringe meeting organised on Tuesday by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the National Association of Head Teachers.
As Health Secretary he had found "doctors and other health professionals are ready to change their practice to provide a more effective service".
He was also critical of the Government's interference in teaching methods. Central diktats on how to set homework and how to teach during the "literacy hour" militated against professionalism, he said.
Peter Smith, ATL general secretary, objected to the comparison with doctors because there was no clearly defined notion of negligence in the teaching profession. "The teaching profession has never been seen to be self-policing, " he said, adding pointedly: "If the previous Government had looked more sympathetically at a general teaching council, that might have been solved. "
Mr Dorrell told The TES the following day that the last Conservative government had failed to get the right balance between the need to manage teachers and the need to develop greater professionalism.
But he said self-government could not be imposed; and that many of the elements of a self-governing profession were weak among teachers. "It is allegedly easier to measure the success of a surgeon than that of a teacher, " he said. "But I think it's frankly easier to measure the effectiveness of a maths teacher than that of a nurse."