Code of practice;Opinion

24th April 1998 at 01:00
Alastair Macbeth argues that a practical definition of educational professionalism should be more than a string of platitudes

Registered teachers were invited to respond to a questionnaire approving (or not) a leaflet containing extracts from the General Teaching Council for Scotland's draft Professional Code for Teachers. Oddly, they did not receive the full two-page draft.

In my view a code is long overdue. We do not yet know if the GTC intends to expand upon the broad exhortations for integrity, care, competence, commitment, respect for learners, pastoral duties and other fundamental virtues. A fuller version could usefully deal with the meaning of "commitment" and the importance of parents as clients.

Debates have failed to define a profession. There are many possible criteria for professionalism. Occupations differ, and so do individuals.

However, a code of ethical practice is common and most occupational groups seeking professional status have created one. The GTC draft is similar in style to the three-page code of professional conduct for nurses. But nurses also have guidelines for professional practice - 39 pages of amplification. The GTC needs something similar if crucial values are not to be regarded as platitudes.

The word "profession" and its derivatives appear 23 times on the first page of the GTC draft. It defines a professional person by "service on behalf of others", specialised capacities developed through education and training, ethical standards, commitment to a quality service and exercise of responsible judgment. So far, so good.

Yet some aspects of professionalism are glossed over or omitted. Can we assume that "commitment" implies time given according to the needs of the clients rather than fixed hours?

More than 20 years ago the Houghton Committee on teachers' pay linked professionalism to avoidance of clock watching. The Main Report of 1986 accepted a "notional average working week", while recognising that tasks may well require more than that.

The Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee's 1994 Scheme of Salaries and Conditions of Service refers to "reasonable and recurrent professional commitment beyond the normal working week" for heads, deputes and assistant heads. However it indicates working hours per week for other teachers.

If professionalism rejects fixed hours, some teachers would seem to be more professional than others. In 1974 I suggested in The TESS that a system might be introduced by which each teacher could prefer being either a limited hours or a fully professional teacher, and be paid accordingly.

Some teachers may have good reasons for wanting fixed hours of work. But they should not expect the same remuneration as their more professional colleagues. Nor, in my view, should they be considered for promotion.

A basic criterion for professionalism is service to a client, but who are the teacher's clients? Parents until the child is 16? The learner thereafter? The education authority? Society as a whole? The GTC draft refers to "service on behalf of others who need it but cannot provide it themselves".

It is open to question how many parents could "provide it themselves". Some do, since schooling is not compulsory, but most parents opt to use the school system. By law parents, not teachers, are responsible for providing education for their child to age 16.

Schools exist to assist parents to fulfil that duty. Parents are therefore the school's legal clients. It is surprising that the GTC fails to mention this fundamental professional issue, preferring instead to discuss learners.

Expertise is generally accepted as a key to professionalism. If so, then surely knowledge of the correlation between home background and school attainment should be central to professional practice, as should knowledge of the educational effects of families. Only 15 per cent of a child's waking, learning life from birth to 16 is spent in school. To quote Scottish Labour's pre-election education statement, "the other 85 per cent of the time they are the responsibility of their parents". Parents affect their children's learning remorselessly. So parents are at the heart of teachers' professionalism. Yet there is only one mention of parents in the draft and none in the leaflet.

The GTC initiative is a welcome first step. Much depends on how far the council now genuinely develops a code which is more than platitudes.

The registrar, Ivor Sutherland, told me: "This is an important exercise and has resulted in a considerable response. The first draft is a starting point only and modifications may well emerge, but they must be by consensus."

In retirement Alastair Macbeth is senior research fellow in the department of education, Glasgow University, and reader in education at St Andrew's College.

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