Careful with that acorn

17th October 1997 at 01:00
A fledgling General Teaching Council should be independent of both the Government and teacher unions.

The worst possible stance that supporters of a General Teaching Council (of whom I am one) can take just now is to minimise the difficulties, the risks, the almost contradictions in the very idea.

A Government has at last committed itself to legislation; the eager response of all who care must be not to ignore the problems in order to get something implemented, but rather to face awkward realities - in order to get it right. Better not to have a GTC at all, than to have one which is unworkable or unhelpful.

The awkward realities are deceptively easy to describe. The White Paper wants to see a council which "speaks for" the teaching profession, raising both its status and its morale. Two challenging requirements follow from this. First, the GTC must be powerful and independent of government. Second, it must be "owned" by the profession. How else can it speak for it?

The first imperative - powerful independence of government - requires the self-denying reversal of almost a decade during which power was centralised into government hands.

But many politicians have now come to believe three falsehoods: that education is a disaster area; that external lever-pulling by government or its quangos is the essential method of treatment; and that the public will not vote for a political party which gives up the idea of ostentatiously prescribing what should be done.

In the era of zero tolerance, of naming, blaming and shaming, it will be to the huge and enduring credit of the new Government if it really can place enough trust in the profession to give power over thedefinition and implementation of professional standards to a General Teaching Council.

Will it have the courage and idealism to do so? Bearing in mind that, whatever other interests are represented in the constitution and membership of a GTC, it must - and let us not apologise for that adult truth - be driven by the professionals.

Which faces us with the second requirement. Can a (shamefully) divided profession live up to the challenge of driving a GTC? Comparisons with the General Medical Council and the Law Society can delude us here. The history of teaching is of a fragmented, low-status profession. There is a half-million mass of teachers. GPs are, comparatively speaking, on a different planet.

At times in the past there has been - again, to our shame - an unprofessional teacher self-interest promoted, in response to poor treatment by society. None of that must taint a GTC, whose idealism and professional ethics must shine.

Not that we should doubt teachers' ability to be idealistic and professional. Most of them magnificently prove it every day. And if the professions may be cynically defined as "organised conspiracies against the laity", then history shows that doctors and lawyers need no lessons from teachers.

I would argue that, paradoxically, the very lack of status of the teaching profession means that we can be more ambitious in attempting to achieve a modern, morally secure, public-service-orientated, professional ruling body. It would need to be a new force for good, not quite like anything now existing.

Although no profession can, or should wish to, insulate itself from society or regard itself as somehow above passing politicians, both society and the passing politicians should accept that there is a genuine role for the autonomous professional in a modern democratic state.

The rise of consumerism - and the consequent self-identification of governments with the public as consumers - has been a force for good in many ways. The accompanying pressure of accountability must be accepted by all modern professions as justifiable and benign.

But society itself is the loser if it fails to realise that professionalism, and the significant professional independence which is part of any correct definition of the term, is also a force for good; not least because the necessarily invisible human processes and interactions on which education is built can only be sustained at the high level we all want if they are driven by professional idealism, not external prescription. This is true of the teacher in the classroom, and of the headteacher responsible for managing the institution.

A strong and worthwhile GTC would be a sign that both the profession and the Government are determined to offer thepublic a more sophisticated understanding of how to create and maintain quality.

I say, let's go for it - but let's go for the real thing. A government-controlled group, or one starved of power, won't do. We need professional independence, not another quango. A consumer-dominated watchdog won't do. That necessary and respectable role is not one for a body charged with defining professionalism for the profession.

A teacher union power base won't do either. Teaching unions will remain for many years and evolve, but must not in the meantime use or abuse a teaching council to further their own ends.

If all this sounds almost unachievable in the real world - I agree. Almost. But not quite. And I want nothing less.

We could survive without a General Teaching Council, and must never forget what else must be done to raise and reform to status of the profession. But the GTC prize is great.

One way to secure it would be to start cautiously, but with an increasing range of powers, moving towards a professionally-dominated membership and constitution - written ineradicably into the legislation from the start. The Bill presented to Parliament in 1996 was a useful beginning. But no compromise with the ultimate realities. We can start small, but let's start right - with an acorn if we really want an oak.

Bruce Douglas is president of the Secondary Heads Association and principal of Branston Community College, Lincolnshire. He writes here in a personal capacity. Consultation on the GTC closes today. The consultation document can be read on and responses can be e-mailed to or faxed to 0171 925 6073

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