The new code of conduct: is it wanted or needed?

17th July 2009 at 01:00
GTC faces accusations that it's extending its reach into teachers' private lives

All teachers recognise the value of a clear set of rules in maintaining good behaviour. Most of the time, the dos and don'ts apply to their pupils, but following the publication of the General Teaching Council for England's new code of conduct, a fresh set of rules governing teachers' actions is to be implemented.

The code, which comes into force in October, sets out guidelines on acceptable behaviour and what teachers should aspire to achieve. It has been the subject of impassioned debate at the council, which registers and regulates all state school teachers.

Following a lengthy consultation, the code was passed by a large majority when put to a members' vote last week. But with the ink barely dry, cries of dissent are already being heard, with the two largest teaching unions calling for significant parts of the code to be sent back to the drawing board.

So why is it proving so difficult to find a set of rules on which the profession can agree?

One of the points of fiercest contention is the fear that the GTC wants to intrude into teachers' private lives. There are also wider concerns about how the code will be used to hold teachers to account and whether it will increase the likelihood of disciplinary action against them.

When the new code was published for consultation last year, worries were immediately expressed that the council was taking too much interest in what teachers do beyond the school gates.

The draft code suggested that school staff should "uphold the law and maintain standards of behaviour, both inside and outside school, that are appropriate given their membership of an important and responsible profession".

This has been toned down in the final document, which now says only that teachers should "maintain reasonable standards in their own behaviour".

The GTC believes the adjustment makes it clear that teachers have the right to a private life.

Incoming council chair Gail Mortimer, who takes up her position in September, was one of those who had expressed reservations about the GTC straying too far into teachers' personal lives.

She had warned that the council needed to be "very careful" not to pry excessively and to focus its attention on professional performance in the classroom.

Mrs Mortimer says she is happy that revisions to the code mean that the right balance has now been struck, but not everyone is as convinced.

Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, agrees with large numbers of her members who are still concerned that the GTC will be "looking over their (teachers') shoulders at all times".

"Members have distinct reservations about it," Ms Blower said. "Of course, teachers should uphold the law and be good role models in school - but members think the code is still too intrusive into their private lives.

"If it is causing concern, it needs to be looked at again. We are not opposed to having a code per se, but teachers feel extensively scrutinised as it is. I hope we can reach a meeting of minds with the GTC and other unions to solve this."

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, described the new code as "completely flawed" and said she was investigating her options in getting it overturned.

"We think the whole consultation has been a travesty and are not happy with the outcome at all," she said. "It is one unholy mess. It is full of vague, pious and aspirational statements. It is not a code of conduct and will leave teachers and headteachers extremely vulnerable.

"The GTC is deeply unpopular with teachers. It knows it has not resonated with the profession and is not seen as having any value.

"The motivation of changing the code is to put the GTC back on the map, but they have done it in a way that will convince people that they are not doing anything to raise the status of teachers."

Ms Keates criticised the way the consultation was carried out, claiming that a series of questions that the union had posed had been ignored by the council.

No decent explanation was given to the union about why a revamp of the existing code was necessary, she said.

She added that it still unclear how the code will be used in disciplinary hearings and that the vague wording would leave it open to legal challenges from teachers who find themselves on the wrong side of it.

Ms Keates also criticised the council's decision to earmark pound;215,000 to publicise and promote the code to its members.

However, Fiona Johnson, the GTC's director of communications, disagrees that the code is less clear than its predecessor.

"It is written in affirmative language that sets out the expectation on teachers in relation to their day-to-day behaviour and practice," she said.

"As such, it is much more relevant to the vast majority of teachers who will never be in a position of facing a GTC disciplinary hearing. The overwhelming majority of those who responded to the consultation said they wanted this type of code, rather than a `thou shalt not' style document."

Ms Johnson said the code had to be revised to reflect changes to the profession and the expectation now placed on teachers to work with other services in light of Every Child Matters. She said it was clear that failure to comply with the code may be taken into account in disciplinary hearings.

She also defended the promotional budget, saying it was a legal requirement to provide a copy of the new code to 540,000 registered teachers and a further 30,000 trainees.

Tom Trust, an elected council member, won the support of colleagues in overturning a line in the draft code for teachers to "act respectfully" to children. It now reads that teachers should "act appropriately".

He also argued successfully for the removal of the responsibility on teachers to "manage the behaviour of children and young people".

Mr Trust said: "The word `respect' has been hijacked by pupils. What a lot of pupils understand by respect is that people should defer to them.

"It might go against the modern grain, but we have already given too much ground and put too much power in the hands of pupils."

`Vague and pious'?

Eight principles expected of teachers under the new code of conduct:

  • Put the wellbeing, development and progress of children and young people first.
  • Take responsibility for maintaining the quality of their teaching practice.
  • Help children and young people to become confident and successful learners.
  • Demonstrate respect for diversity and promote equality.
  • Strive to establish productive partnerships with parents and carers.
  • Work as part of a whole-school team.
  • Co-operate with other professionals in the children's workforce.
  • Demonstrate honesty and integrity and uphold public trust and confidence in the teaching profession.
    • BNP teachers in the clear

      A call to include rules in the new code of conduct that would ban teachers from joining the BNP failed to win the support of the GTC.

      Five of the council's 64 members launched a public campaign last month to outlaw teachers from joining the far-right political party.

      They claimed that membership was incompatible with teachers' responsibility to promote community cohesion.

      But Alan Meyrick, registrar of the GTC, said that the council had to be an independent regulator.

      That meant "membership of any lawful political party cannot amount to unacceptable professional conduct", he said.


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