Lessons from murder

18th February 2005 at 00:00
The Shipman inquiry will have repercussions for regulation in teaching, explains Carol Adams

Who is best to decide whether a teacher, doctor or lawyer is safe and fit to practise? The inquiry conducted by Dame Janet Smith into the murders committed by Harold Shipman has pushed professional regulation back onto the public agenda and raised fundamental questions about who should regulate professionals, how the public interest can best be guaranteed and what the roles of lay and professional members should be.

Dame Janet's radical thinking coincided with an independent review of the General Teaching Council's governance and the progress made in its first four years, requested voluntarily by the council. The Audit Commission undertook the review and reported in January 2005.

It says the council is well managed and its regulatory work well established. Our direct work with teachers and local education authorities is commended. We are urged to refocus our advisory work in light of the changing policy environment and to improve stakeholder relations.

But the teeth of the report lie in a number of radical challenges to the council's constitution and regulatory role. The council is asked to consider its size and structure, the balance between lay and teacher members and greater separation between governance of the council and regulation. These are big issues for the council to face relatively early in its existence and will be considered carefully at meetings in April and July.

It was in 1998 that the Teaching and Higher Education Act established the principle of professionally led regulation for the teaching profession in England, putting teachers on a par with doctors, nurses and other professions. Apart from cases involving child protection, teachers' futures would no longer be decided by DfES officials behind closed doors.

Teachers would regulate the conduct and competence of their colleagues in partnership with the public through their own professional body - the GTC.

The council, while including one-third lay members, was to constitute by law a majority of teachers, with 25 of the 64 members elected by the profession. The GTC's legislation prescribes that 25 teachers will be elected, nine members will be nominated by the teacher unions and 16 further members appointed to represent the education sector, parents and the wider public.

Our legislation also states that at least one council member must sit on each disciplinary panel, so that they are fully involved in all aspects of the process. The council decided early on that only council members would serve on disciplinary panels, with two teachers and one lay member on each.

The council's constitution reflected thinking on professional regulation at the time, but just as the GTC was establishing its systems for regulation in 2002, other regulators were moving in a different direction, with a sharper eye to the public interest and independent expertise.

Most regulatory councils have been reduced in size, for example the General Medical Council changed from a council of 104 to a membership of 35 with only 19 elected doctors and a medical majority of just one. It has chosen to have its cases conducted by panels drawn from outside the council. This reflects a growing view that to safeguard against protectionism, external people, both lay and professional, should be appointed for their expertise and experience. The council of the General Social Care Council, established in October 2001, comprises 12 members, the majority of whom must be lay members with experience across the spectrum of social care, and by law the chairman must be a lay person.

Different approaches to professional regulation have co-existed and each has its strengths. GTC council members have undergone rigorous training, work constantly to achieve impartiality and fairness, and, wherever possible, identify remedial support that will allow a teacher to return to practice. They have developed a code of conduct to guide their work. There is much here to be proud of.

However, Dame Janet has a clear view that it is difficult to reconcile being elected, and therefore answerable to a constituency, with a dispassionate regard for the public interest. She says the role of medical members of the General Medical Council is not to represent doctors' views, but to serve the public interest. Although many of her recommendations are relevant only to health care, and some will be challenged, it would be complacent to assume that our own system of professional regulation will somehow remain immune from wider public scrutiny. The genie cannot be put back into the bottle.

Carol Adams is chief executive of the General Teaching Council for England

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