Flesh on the bones of a big idea

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
The idea of a General Teaching Council has support from Labour and beyond, but what kind of GTC? John Tomlinson reports.

I will lead a government that values teachers and ends the constant vilification of the profession . . . I propose a new deal for teachers: there will be pressure to succeed, but it will be matched by support. That is why we are committed to the establishment of a General Teaching Council which will enhance the professional status of teachers." (Tony Blair, Birmingham, April 14).

Not only the Labour party but also the Liberal Democrats, the House of Commons Select Committee on Education, the National Commission on Education and many MPs and Lords in all parties support the idea of a General Teaching Council. So does the alliance of teachers (schools, further education and higher education), parents, governors, churches and local education authorities which has worked since 1990 to bring about a GTC.

The question now must be: what kind of a GTC? What must it do to achieve the purposes intended? It must be constituted so as to be apolitical, and in thrall to no organisation or grouping. Only then can it stand as the guarantor of the public interest in high-quality teaching. And its procedures must be such as will continually demonstrate to the public the concern of teachers and other stakeholders in education for high quality and the improvement of standards.

Such a GTC will give to teachers a public and collective responsibility for their work which will help create higher self-esteem and higher status for the profession in the eyes of the public.

It follows that the GTC should have the following duties and powers: 1 A duty to advise the Secretary of State on the objectives and criteria of initial teacher training and education.

2 A duty to set the criteria for approval of courses for continuing professional development.

3 A duty to decide the acceptability of qualifications of teachers from overseas, and grant or withhold registration.

4 A duty to maintain the register of teachers; and to decide upon deregistration in cases of gross professional misconduct, readmission to the register, and so on (the current List 99 function of the Department for Education and Employment).

5 A duty to advise the Secretary of State on the future necessary supply of teachers, in total and by phase or subject specialisation.

6 A power to recommend to employers of teachers the criteria for training and competence appropriate for those returning to the profession after a significant interval.

7 A power to undertake research and enquiries in connection with its duties and powers.

8 A power to advise the Secretary of State, whether requested to or not, on any aspect of the public education service relating to the council's responsibilities.

9 A power to keep the public and the profession informed about all aspects of the council's work.

Under current arrangements, the Teacher Training Agency is responsible for advice on initial teacher training and education and for setting criteria for continuing professional development courses while the DFEE covers overseas teachers, the register and List 99. Decisions about returning teachers are at the discretion of employers. No public body constituted on behalf of the education service covers points 7 and 8.

It follows that in the case of five significant duties to be assumed by a GTC, aspects of the work are already being done. Some of the expertise is therefore available, and some of the costs known. The difference would lie in the responsibility being carried by a duly constituted public body rather than by a government department or appointed agency, both of whose procedures are closed, and in the active involvement of teachers, parents, governors, LEAs, churches and other public interests.

It should be noted that a GTC would not concern itself with many detailed aspects of teacher training, and would have no responsibility for funding. For example, the inspection of courses could remain with the Office for Standards in Education, and the approval of individual courses or accreditation of institutions could remain with the TTA, or whatever the Government might decide. Approval of the criteria for initial teacher education and the promulgation of the Circulars and regulations would remain with the Secretary of State. Nothing in these proposals would change the responsibilities of the present providers of teacher education and training, governing bodies, further education corporations or the senates and councils of universities. It would, however, give them a greater say in the nature and setting of standards, and more information about the performance of the system. There would also be no impediment to the creation of a National (or Royal) Teachers' College, which could approve certain courses and qualifications for its own prestigious membership or fellowship.

It should be seen as a virtue that powers which are now highly concentrated would be separated. The setting and review of standards for training and its content would lie with the GTCSecretary of State. Responsibilities for their application to courses and institutions, and monitoring would lie with OFSTEDTTA or successor bodies. The GTC would receive information from inspection and monitoring in order to keep the criteria under review.

Equally, it would be for the GTC to investigate and determine matters of gross professional misconduct. But questions of professional competence would continue to be a matter for the employers of teachers, under employment law.

If these are to be the powers and duties, how should the Council be constituted? To be credible, the GTC must have a majority of teachers in membership, albeit a small majority. It must also have in membership parents, employers (LEAs, governors of schools and colleges, the churches and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals), business and government. Most members would be chosen through national organisations, but some would be appointed by the Privy Council. Once the register is established, some teachers could be elected.

The fear that a GTC could be a "mega-trade union" would be countered in three ways. First, the GTC would have nothing to do with pay bargaining, conditions of service or the promotion of particular interests. Second, any member of the council would be required to act as a representative, not a delegate, and therefore to use his or her own best judgment in contributing to the work of the council. Third, the processes by which conclusions were reached would be sufficiently transparent for both council and the public to assure themselves that sectional interests had not prevailed.

The full development, by which all teachers in primary, secondary, further and higher education would be on the register, would be reached by pragmatic stages. At first all those with a "DFEE number" would be automatically placed on the register. This would include all in primary and secondary schools and would be open to many in further education and some in higher education. Others could gain registration in recognition of service. As training became a requirement at all stages, as is now seriously in prospect, so those qualified would be placed on the register. In higher education it would be for the employer to say whether a particular post carried a requirement for training as a teacher, so that, for example, those whose duties were mainly in research could continue to offer some teaching also.

The teaching profession, after 150 years of aspiration and false dawns, is almost certainly about to be offered a General Teaching Council. It is essential that the opportunity is not fumbled, by either politicians or teachers and their allies. It must not be a minimal council, dealing only with registration and discipline, and which would do nothing to enhance professional responsibility and esteem. But neither can it be everything everyone might want, at least to start with. It is time for careful consultation and statesmanship on all sides.

Professor John Tomlinson has been chairman of GTC (England and Wales), a body working towards a GTC, since 1990

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