Gordon Kirk looks at Labour's romance with general teaching councils
The Government came to power with a manifesto commitment to enhance the standing of the teaching profession. In Scotland, that commitment is expected to be honoured by extending the powers of the General Teaching Council. South of the border, the election promise will be kept by the establishment of separate General Teaching Councils for England and for Wales. Following consultation, legislation is being enacted as part of the Teaching and Higher Education Bill.
Announcing the proposed legislation, David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, claimed that the new GTC "will have a crucial role to play in promoting high standards and raising the standing and morale of the profession". It is seen to provide "a single voice for teachers" and to offer the teaching profession "a measure of self-regulation". Opening the debate at the second reading of the Bill, Lady Blackstone reinforced the Government line: the new council "will offer teachers a clear professional voice, independent of government, but working with us to raise standards".
A succession of speakers supported that view, even when their primary interest lay in other sections of the Bill, such as those dealing with student fees and the financing of higher education. However, several speakers were sharply critical. Lord Tope claimed that "the teaching council will be Mr Blunkett's poodle" - and "a toothless poodle" at that. Which of these assessments is justified?
It has to be said that the Bill is an extremely modest affair and it is difficult to see how those who campaigned for a GTC over many years can see it remotely realising their aspirations. It is true that it confers on both General Teaching Councils a strong advisory role on a wide range of issues:
"standards of teaching; standards of conduct for teachers; the role of the teaching profession; the training, career development, and performance management of teachers; recruitment to the teaching profession; and medical fitness to teach". Teachers in England and Wales will surely value this significant entitlement to consultation which the legislation establishes.
That advisory role is, in some respects, more extensive than that enjoyed by the General Teaching Council for Scotland. When the GTC was established here it was clearly a response to the need to exercise stricter scrutiny over qualifications for entry to teaching, and the council's advisory powers in Scotland were statutorily restricted to that function. No one now believes that the quality of teaching is to be secured simply by the careful scrutiny of academic and professional credentials at the point of entry. For more than a decade the GTC for Scotland has urged upon successive Secretaries of State the necessity to extend its powers to recognise the crucial importance of continuing professional development. The last Secretary of State was finally persuaded and signalled the intention to extend the GTC's powers, regrettably only when it seemed to be to his electoral advantage to do so.
Apart from that advisory function, the proposed General Teaching Councils will have responsibility only "to establish and maintain a register of teachers". The Bill makes no provision for the wide range of powers currently enjoyed by the GTC for Scotland: supervision and assessment of teachers throughout the probationary period; the right to remove teachers from the register for professional misconduct; the entitlement to visit colleges of education and to accredit teacher education programmes; and the right to scrutinise claims for admission to the register on exceptional grounds.
Indeed, even the right to establish and maintain a register is circumscribed in various ways. The councils will not determine who is eligible to be registered and will have no authority to remove teachers from the register, both powers being retained by the Secretary of State. Amazingly, it appears that registration will not even be compulsory. One clause states that "the register shall contain the name of every person who is eligible for registration and applies to be registered . . ." That poses the question about those who may be eligible for registration but do not apply to be registered. A subsequent clause gives the Secretary of State authority to make regulations concerning the registration of those who do not apply for registration.
There is significant ambiguity here that was not removed in the second reading debate. In his winding-up speech, Lord Whitty stated that "teachers who have qualified status will be able to register with the GTC". There is a world of difference between being able to register and being required to register. It is remarkable that to date the Government has not appeared to see the need for compulsory registration, or even to ensure that the council contains a majority of teachers. If there is a measure of self-regulation here, it is not much of a measure. Why has the Government sought to restrict the functions of the new councils in these ways?
There are two possible answers. The first is that the Government intends to proceed slowly. Its strategy is to give the councils minimal powers so that if they win the confidence of the profession, and of the public, not to mention the DFEE, additional powers can be subsequently conferred and a more ambitious role established. The new councils are being put on probation, as it were. A second explanation for ascribing such limited powers is that the Government has insufficient confidence in teachers' ability to take on such key responsibilities as probation, accreditation of teacher education, and matters of professional discipline.
The Scottish experience demonstrates clearly enough that the profession itself can be relied upon to impose demanding standards of professional conduct. Even if it is assumed that the Secretary of State requires a body such as the Teacher Training Agency to exercise his right to approve teacher education programmes, it has to be acknowledged that initial teacher education courses should be professionally acceptable and who better to make such assessments than the body which is the voice of the teaching profession?
It may be an impertinence for someone from Scotland to comment on the Bill in this way. However, there are two ways in which its provisions might influence Scottish practice. First, Scottish ministers may be unduly deferential to their counterparts at Westminster and, in considering the extension of the GTC's role in Scotland, might come up with proposals that are too cautious and well below our expectations.
There is nothing inevitable about this, of course. It is to be hoped that in considering ways in which the powers of the GTC should be extended - and there is now widespread consensus that that should entail an involvement in continuing professional development - Scottish ministers build on the significant experience of the council and are not deflected by a fear of accentuating differences between Scotland and south of the border. We will not achieve our best potential simply by keeping our noses slightly ahead of England.
Second, in Scotland we have become used to referring to the "GTC" even although the council's logo adds the significant term "for Scotland". It should be noted that the Bill under consideration makes reference to the "General Teaching Council" when it refers to the GTC to be established in England, and to the "GTC for Wales" when reference is made to provision in the principality. Am I alone in thinking that it is time we put an end to such usages as the "RFU" as though there was only one country that played rugby? When the legislation on higher education was introduced in 1992, care was taken to differentiate between the funding councils in the different parts of the UK. Scottish MPs should be sufficiently alert to the need to amend the Bill to ensure that it refers to the GTC for England.
Professor Gordon Kirk is principal of Moray House Institute.