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12th January 2001 at 00:00
The new General Teaching Council has the central - and somewhat lofty - aim of raising the status of teaching. Now it has to prove its worth. Estelle Currie reports.

Along with thousands of new teachers who started their careers last September, the fledgling General Teaching Council for England also opened its doors for business. As the council's 64 members and chair, vice-chair and chief executive settle into their first year, they are sure of one thing at least - that they will be subject to the same scrutiny and debate as the profession they were chosen to serve.

A key aim of this new professional body will be to raise the status and upgrade the image of teaching - putting teachers on a par with professionals such as doctors or architects. And if there are ambitions for a different type of teacher in the future - better trained, better paid and held in higher regard - then it will be the younger teachers who will be expected to be the first to reflect and take advantage of these changes.

But like the newly-qualified staff facing their first challenges in the classroom, the GTC will have to prove its worth and show that it can turn such good intentions into practical achievements.

Carol Adams, the GTC's chief executive, believes that one of the council's first responsibilities is to set out what it means to be a professional teacher in today's classrooms. And in support of this, in the spring the council will publish a professional code for the profession, which it feels will make it clear to the wider public that teachers are professionals with a great deal of skill and expertise.

"Teachers have a special role, a very important role: they are at the forefront of change, the frontline contact for future generations. And this ought to be recognised, there's been insufficient understanding of what's involved in being a teacher," she says.

"Many teachers feel they work in a climate in which there's a sense that any person can become a teacher because everyone's been to school. In fact it's an all-graduate profession, with detailed training and high standards of qualification."

A former chief education officer, inspector and classroom teacher, Carol Adams believes that while standards of teaching have improved there is still a great deal of work to do. "We know there are some real issues and concerns about teaching, about the future of education, what kind of education we need for the future, what kind of teachers we need and whether there will be enough of them.

"This is an opportunity to have a genuine professional voice; for every teacher to have their say on these issues and to bring to bear their professional expertise, their knowledge of the classroom, the day-to-day reality of teaching and to have a channel for their experience."

Officially, the council's work only began last September, but David Puttnam, former film-maker and now chair of the GTC, has visited 220 schools since Education Secretary David Blunkett appointed him two-and-a-half years ago.

Lord Puttnam is confident that the GTC is aware of the issues facing teachers. As well as his visits to schools, more than 1,000 teachers have contributed to roadshows held around the country - while another 1,000 responded to the council's leaflets.

"Teachers are being consulted - more than they expected. There's a real atmosphere of engagement I there's a lot of listening going on and what comes back from the listening isn't always what one would like, but they're being listened to," he says.

The council's second aim - providing an independent and influential voice for teachers - may prove more problematic. The substantial voice of the trades unions already claims to represent teachers. And there is the real possibility that some kind of turf war may threaten the relationship carefully established by the council as it advises the Secretary of State on issues like performance management. Nine union members were nominated directly on to the council, and some of the elected teachers are also union members.

Puttnam denies this. "Logically, it will work very well, because the unions' core job is the professional conditions under which their membership work and live, and we should be entirely complementary to that."

The council won't be a "super-union", but it will represent teachers' interests, adds Carol Adams. "The GTC doesn't provide anything - we won't be providing professional development, we won't be providing individual insurance cover and casework advice for teachers. That's clearly the role of the unions.

"We've got to be an advocate organisation that makes very bold, very clear demands. Teachers see those demands as absolutely spot-on as to what's needed, and they are recognised by government and other bodies as being the solution to some of the problems that we have."

The council is working on a set of specific demands which it will put to government on critical areas like the retention of good teachers. Carol Adams believes that the way to do that is to offer teachers an entitlement to proper professional development.

"They should be involved in a discussion about what accountability should mean - and how you can have an effective system of internal accountability. Shortly we'll be bringing some demands which we'll set out for teachers and say, this is what you've been telling us is needed to move on into the future, to enable you to do the job and to bring back the real satisfaction which took you into teaching in the first place."

In terms of establishing a professional body for teachers, it's taken 139 years to get this far. Talk of some kind of council was first heard in 1862, when the College of Preceptors proposed a "scholastic council". Over the years, teachers have done battle with government and unions with varying degrees of success. In September 1910, a leading article in the first solo edition of The Times Educational Supplement called for "some kind of stricter professional organisation, with an infusion of official representatives I and the establishment of a Teachers' Register upon a comprehensive basis would render such an organisation possible."

Although Scotland established a General Teaching Council in 1966, English ministers could not be persuaded to do so until 1998, when the General Teaching Council was established by the Teaching and Higher Education Act with three specific aims: to raise the professional status and public standing of teachers; provide an independent and influential voice for teachers, and maintain and guarantee high professional standards of teaching.

And putting all this into practice will be an organisation among whose members will be a majority of serving teachers. In addition to Lord Puttnam, vice-chair John Tomlinson and Carol Adams, the council has 64 members. Forty-two are serving teachers, although only 25 of these were elected directly from the profession last April: 11 teachers of junior pupils (under 12 years); 11 teachers of senior pupils (over 12 years); one special school teacher and two headteachers, one each from the junior and senior categories.

Each member will hold office for four years. There are 38 women on the council, including the chief executive, with just 27 men. But there would need to be 44 women and 21 men to reflect the gender balance of active teachers.

The remaining membership comprises nine teacher members appointed by the main teaching unions; 17 members appointed by major representative bodies such as the Local Government Association and the Independent Schools' Council; and 13 appointments made by the Secretary of State. David Blunkett appointed eight more teachers to the council, alongside the offices of chair and vice-chair, two parents and an accountant.

In its first year the GTC will have to work hard to make an impact on teachers' daily lives. Puttnam and Adams are conscious that awareness "continues to be at a low level".

They'll also have to prove their independence from the Government - not easy, as it provided pound;16 million to cover set-up costs. Seventy-five staff are currently employed in offices in London and Birmingham. But it is the council's responsibility to be self-funding, so teachers will have to pay a subscription after October 1 this year. Exactly how much is still to be decided, but this will be partly dependent on the final number of registered teachers.

Maintaining a register of teachers will fulfil the final part of the council's remit, as it seeks to maintain and guarantee high professional standards. It has a responsibility to investigate and hear allegations of unacceptable professional conduct or serious professional misconduct, and will step in once the employer's role has been completed. It can temporarily or permanently remove a teacher from the register; attach conditions to registration; issue a reprimand or a caution, or decide no further action is necessary.

Its regulatory function owes much to other professional organisations like the British Medical Association and the General Medical Council. But Lord Puttnam and Carol Adams are keen to avoid the difficulties those associations have encountered over the past year or so.

"There will be no cover-ups," says Adams. "We've got to be incredibly open, transparent and fair in all of our regulatory work. And as the years progress we'll need to refine and refine how that process works, and guarantee that we exercise the proper procedures and checks on quality - the gatekeeping role that you'd expect of professionals."

This collection of representatives of the different interest groups in education is hoping to make a big difference to the whole culture of teaching, so that those beginning their careers can expect a future in which they will be seen as well-paid professionals who are listened to rather than badly-paid professional moaners who are ignored.

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