Teachers, like doctors, should have a longer period in which they continue to develop skills and knowledge before acquiring full professional status, academics suggest.
At the moment, new teachers can be judged against a code of professional conduct with which they may not yet be familiar. Indeed, as professional expectations evolve under the current government, the academics believe it can be difficult for new entrants to the profession to be sure what is required of them.
Researchers from Manchester and Edge Hill universities analysed the professional codes of conduct laid out both by the now-defunct General Teaching Council for England (GTCE) and, more recently, the Department for Education. Their conclusions were presented at the annual British Educational Research Association conference, held in Manchester this autumn.
From 2001 until the start of this year, the GTCE was the regulatory body for the teaching profession. Education secretary Michael Gove disbanded the organisation, claiming that it "does little to raise teaching standards or professionalism". England is now the only country in the UK without a teaching council and explicit code of conduct and practice.
The government has also abolished the Training and Development Agency for Schools, the body previously responsible for initial teacher training. This means that a single organisation - the DfE - is now responsible both for training teachers and for monitoring their professionalism.
And the GTCE's code of conduct has evolved into a new set of teachers' standards, published by the DfE. These standards apply to all teachers, regardless of what stage they are at in their career. "As such, acknowledgment of trainee teachers' embryonic professional identity, needs and professional growth are not evident," the academics say.
Under the new regulatory arrangements, however, responsibility for less serious cases of professional misconduct and incompetence has been delegated to headteachers and school governing bodies.
"This distinction between serious and less serious cases of misconduct is clearly open to interpretation," the researchers say. "And it is within this context of a lack of transparency ... that we feel those new to the profession are most vulnerable.
"Trainee teachers ... need to demonstrate meeting the personal and professional standards, yet their understanding of them, familiarity with them and enactment of them is potentially problematic in a changing educational landscape."
This is particularly true, they add, because the expectations of teachers are constantly changing. The boundaries between home and school are becoming increasingly blurred, and transgressions across those boundaries correspondingly complex. The precise role of the teacher is thus becoming more and more difficult to identify.
"Consequently, relying upon induction into the profession by senior and experienced colleagues ... may no longer be a reliable method, as experienced teachers themselves are emerging into newly formed identities," the academics say.
They therefore argue that trainee and new teachers need to be recognised as emerging professionals. They refer to the system governing the medical profession, where qualified doctors practise as junior and senior house officers and registrars, before becoming fully fledged consultants. Like doctors, they say, education professionals should recognise "a lengthy state, in which the learner develops their skills and knowledge, while gaining the experience required in acquiring 'professionalism'.
"This state would allow a trainee teacher's emergence as a professional to be considered as a formative process, requiring reflection, criticality and experience."
New teachers undergoing such in-school training would not be considered unprofessional: "The trainee has many of the values and virtues required to become a member of the profession," the academics say.
Instead, these "proto-professionals" would be supported and valued in their developmental condition. They would develop increased understanding of pupils from diverse backgrounds, and with multiple needs. They would also learn to understand what the academics describe as "the theoretical, ethical and cultural nature of the profession".
Full professionalism would be acquired only after a prolonged period of experience, coupled with considerable reflection on this experience.
Recently, the government has announced that academies and free schools will be allowed to employ teachers without qualified teacher status. This, the academics state, could create "a potential backdoor pseudo-profession". Therefore, they believe, the need for proto-professional status is greater than ever.
Such status would "acknowledge the necessary attitudinal attributes and skills base, along with ethically sound and socially responsible characteristics consistent with belonging to a profession. Such an approach refutes a backdoor approach to professionalism, and cherishes and celebrates the journey to becoming a professional."
HOW IT WORKS FOR DOCTORS
After graduating from university, junior doctors go into a vocational training phase, at the end of which they will qualify as a consultant.
This process begins when newly qualified doctors enter a two-year foundation programme, where they are trained in a range of specialities. These must include general medicine and general surgery, as well as any other fields of their choice.
At the end of this phase, doctors can choose to specialise in a particular field. This involves further assessment and examination. To train as a GP, for example, doctors must spend 18 months studying a range of specialties, as well as 18 months based in a GP practice. At the end of this training, and after passing the relevant exams, the doctor can practise independently as a GP.
Hospital doctors, meanwhile, must pass relevant postgraduate exams and interviews within their chosen specialties. They progress from senior house officer to specialty registrar. Once all training is complete, they qualify as consultants within their chosen specialisms.
The time taken to progress from graduation through to consultant status varies according to specialty. In some areas it takes seven years; in others, it takes more than 10.
Spendlove, D., Hardy, G. and Shortt, D. "Evolution or Revolution? Codes of conduct and regulation of trainee teachers' personal and professional conduct". Paper presented at the 2012 British Educational Research Association conference.
Dr David Spendlove, University of Manchester: www.manchester.ac.ukresearchdavid.spendlove
Dr Graham Hardy, University of Manchester: www.manchester.ac.ukresearchgraham.hardy
Dr Damien Shortt, Edge Hill University: www.edgehill.ac.ukprofilesdamien-shortt