Let the teachers decide;Opinion;News amp; Opinion

19th November 1999 at 00:00
Guarding standards is the profession's job and it should be given the powers to act decisively, says Brian Monteith

IF THE registrar of the General Teaching Council and his staff pop a few champagne corks when the Government eventually reveals how ministers intend to extend its powers, they can be forgiven for untypically showing some emotion. They have been waiting a long time and the puzzle is why.

The Tories missed the opportunity to do it themselves when in power, which is surprising when you consider that they professed to be in favour of self-regulatory bodies. I can only guess their suspicions about union dominance held them back.

If that was the case, then they were wrong. Anybody who gets close enough to the GTC understands that, although the unions run very effective slates in the elections, it does not take long before their nominees turn native. That is because the GTC is a teaching council, not a teachers' council.

When I attended its council and committee meetings over a period of six years, I found nothing but earnest professionalism. Members would pour over position papers, draft reports, submissions to this and submissions to that. Frankly this made it competent but dull. That's why it has always had a problem of maintaining a profile. When latterly I even attended a few disciplinary meetings, I was struck by the fastidiousness they applied to procedure so that justice was done.

That's why, in drawing up the Tory response to the Scottish Executive's consultation document on the extension of GTC powers, I have argued the case for giving the council much more authority than the Government is currently considering. There is more to creating a well respected profession than just pay. Teachers must be seen to care about their own standards and show a commitment to deal with any lapses effectively.

This is where a stronger GTC can help. It is absurd that the GTC monitors a teacher's fitness to teach in the probationary period and then does little else than take the annual pound;20 fee for the rest of his or her career.

The GTC has to be concerned with ensuring that teacher standards are maintained and developed to meet the new challenges presented by technological and social change. It must therefore become recognised as the sole arbiter of professional competence. The Scottish Executive suggests giving the GTC a role but only once an individual is referred by a local authority employer. This is fundamentally flawed. Local authorities have shown scant regard for maintaining standards in the past and there is no reason to expect that they will change in the future.

If teachers really wish to be taken seriously as professionals they must open themselves up to public scrutiny. The way to do this is to allow parents or guardians and fellow professionals to refer a claim of incompetence to the GTC.

The performance of the GTC in dealing with disciplinary matters is, I believe, generally held to be beyond reproach and I have no reason to expect that it would not be able to root out any vexatious complaints from aggrieved parents or, say, headteachers that bore a grudge. Dismissal by a school or an employing authority would not necessarily result in deregistration if the council decided otherwise but this is no different from the current practice regarding disciplinary matters.

Part of the checks and balances that teachers would require under such a radical change would be to give the council a wider range of sanctions. This could then mean that the GTC might insist on a teacher undertaking various courses. Concurrent with this, and to ensure uniform standards are achieved across Scotland, the GTC should be given the sole authority to accredit staff development courses.

A further strengthening of its self-regulatory nature would be to reduce the influence of local authority employers. At 49 members, the size of the GTC is manageable, but current proposals suggest a teacher majority of only one. Not only does this mean that in practice teachers may be in a minority but the committees that are so important might never have a teacher majority. This would be unacceptable to lawyers and teachers should accept no less.

To achieve this, the four local authority representatives should be removed from the council and replaced by a new category for headteachers, reflecting today's devolved management of powers with headteachers having far more say in who is employed in a teacher's post. If local authority representatives must attend, and their attendance record has not always been impressive, then let them be one of the Scottish Executive's nominations.

Current concern about the low turnout in GTC elections is welcome but misplaced. Once the GTC exercises greater powers after the probationary period it will become more relevant to Scotland's teachers and electoral participation can be expected to grow.

The totality of these changes should be to raise self-esteem within the profession and enhance the profession's reputation with the public. Sam Galbraith is presumably a member of the General Medical Council, which polices standards in the medical profession. Patients have the right to complain if they believe a doctor is not up to scratch. Why deny a similar right to parents and deny teachers the respect they deserve?

Brian Monteith is Tory shadow spokesman on education and a former public relations consultant to the GTC.

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