Changing lives at the GTC

30th March 2001 at 01:00
Neil Munro talks to the new man at the gatekeeper's lodge about the challenges ahead

This must be the dream time to be taking charge at the General Teaching Council for Scotland. Matthew MacIver, the depute registrar who slips into Ivor Sutherland's seat on Monday, is palpably excited.

For much of its 36 years, the council has been doing many worthy things but, as Mr MacIver is the first to admit, it has barely touched the profession - apart from relieving teachers of their annual registration fee, striking some of them off the register altogether and setting the standard for probationers to achieve full registration.

At the only point of direct contact between the council and teachers, during the four-yearly elections, the nation's staffrooms appeared to respond less than enthusiastically, with abysmally low turnouts. But then, Mr MacIver observes cheerfully, the numbers who take part in presidential elections in the United States are also astonishingly low.

Now, he hopes, all is about to change - and not just because an obvious new enthusiast is taking over. Within the next two years, the GTC will acquire new powers over teacher competence and ill health as well as more flexibility in the way it deals with professional misconduct. The Scottish Executive has also invited the council to shape the future of continuous professional development (CPD), which will be written into teacher contracts from 2003.

"These are all issues that will touch teachers directly," Mr MacIver said in his first interview, "and they present opportunities for us to engage with them in a professional and positive way, as opposed just to the negativity associated with disciplinary powers."

He also believes that new technology, into which the council has put additional investment, "offers scope for ongoing dialogue between the profession and the council as never before, through our website".

But the new registrar and chief executive also intends to be visible, touring schools and talking to teachers. "As someone who spent 29 years of my life in teaching, it would be surprising if I didn't wish to do that," Mr MacIver said. He came to the council three years ago from the headship of the Royal High in Edinburgh.

Improved communication, both within the profession and with the world at large, will be at the heart of Mr MacIver's strategy. "Proactive" is his watchword, and he believes his job title of chief executive reflects that. While closer relationships with the profession are his aim, he will now have another obligation: the Standards in Scotland's Schools Etc Act puts the GTC under a statutory duty to act "in the public interest".

He focuses on professional development as a key issue. "If te GTC is not to be the lead body on CPD, who is? Our job is to take a whole profession into a new world. It's as fundamental and exciting as that."

He acknowledges that the council cannot possibly accredit each of the thousands of courses that will be offered to teachers, but says it can accredit the providers. Part of the GTC's role is to guarantee national consistency, he adds, "so that the primary 4 teacher in Stornoway has the same quality opportunities to extend his or hers professionalism as the primary 4 teacher in Stranraer".

The next logical step may be to become involved in a continuum of qualifications which includes the standard for full registration, chartered teacher status and the Scottish Qualification for Headship. The test will come some way down the line when, as the Scottish Executive has strongly hinted, evidence of professional development activity eventually becomes a condition of remaining on the register and therefore of being allowed to continue teaching.

There is also the linked issue of the whole field of teaching qualifications, Mr MacIver states. "Should the primary qualification become more specialised? Should there be an upper primary-lower secondary qualification? What about the challenge of the new community schools? What about the new Higher Still subjects?" The introduction of professional development will give an impetus to any review, he adds, because teachers will want to keep adding to their portfolio of qualifications.

Mr MacIver takes an upbeat view, partly because of what he sees as the new climate created by the post-McCrone settlement. "At our recent conference, Jack McConnell, the Education Minister, spoke about teaching as a special profession. So I hope that signals a departure from the mistrust and suspicion of the past.

"Teachers have to regain confidence in themselves, be proud to be part of the teaching profession and start talking it up."

He has been particularly involved in trying to kick-start that process by establishing GTC teaching scholarships to encourage teachers to reflect on their own practice - 40 will be awarded over the next two years. The council received around 200 enquiries which translated into 64 firm applications. He hopes they could be the basis of research projects rooted in classroom practice.

At least in the future the GTC will not be alone in the British Isles in contemplating its relationship to all these issues, having acquired rugby-style company in the form of the "five nations" - similar councils are being established in the three other home countries and the Irish Republic.

Mr MacIver, unlike Dr Sutherland, will not have to get out the map of the world to find his counterparts.

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