No knee-jerk reaction: GTCW should stay

20th August 2010 at 01:00

Michael Gove, the English education secretary, may well spend the summer pondering the old adage "act in haste, repent at leisure".

His decision to abolish the General Teaching Council in England is coming back to bite him. Such a move seemed superficially attractive: it seemed to "free" teachers from interference in their private lives, abolished yet another quango and - most important of all to a Westminster government indulging in an orgy of public spending cuts - it might save some money.

There were siren calls from a few this side of Offa's Dyke for Wales to follow suit. But we are fortunate that the Government in the bay is avoiding such a knee-jerk, populist response. The future of registration and regulation needs careful, reasoned and informed deliberation. It seems to me that the trust of children, parents and the public can only be maintained if those who work in schools are subject to a registration and regulation process.

A properly maintained register rules out those who are morally or professionally unsuitable to work with young people. Without registration, the unsuitable could flit from school to school, rather like Captain Grimes in Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall.

Regulation is the means by which disputes about a person's suitability for registration are decided. A person may be unfit for inclusion on the register for a variety of reasons, not all of which by any means are dealt with in the criminal courts. And, unless one subscribes to another old adage that "any fool can teach", there are standards of competence that parents, pupils and colleagues can expect from teachers.

Abolish registration and regulation and the resultant free-for-all will benefit no one. The morally unsuitable will slip through the net to gain access to children, and those who simply can't teach will move from post to post, damaging learning. It will also mean that teachers who have been unjustly accused will not be able to clear their names.

Unofficial blacklists will be kept by employers and county council officials. Faceless bureaucrats in the education department will decide on a teacher's competence and suitability. The guilty will escape while the innocent will be punished.

The real question is not whether registration and regulation are necessary but rather who does it and how it is done. It is surely far better that the policies and procedures associated with regulation be directed by members of the school workforce rather than those who have only the most rudimentary knowledge of schools. On the other hand, it has to be accepted that post-Shipman, the GP who murdered hundreds of his patients, the days of any profession being entirely self-regulated are over. The process must protect - and be seen to protect - the legitimate interests of all.

Given recent damning reports on the Nursery and Midwifery Council and the General Council for Social Care, it is clear that the GTCW has been far more efficient in its performance of duties with regard to registration and regulation than other regulatory councils. Registration is best left with them. The alternatives are grim - no government department has a good track record on the sort of major IT projects that the maintenance of a registration database demands. But the status quo is not an option - the GTCW needs to be changed if it is to give maximum value and service.

First, the evolution of a General Education Council responsible for the registration and regulation of all classroom staff in schools and colleges would be a fairer reflection of the present educational landscape in Wales. The advent of teaching assistants and the 14-19 agenda have blurred many traditional divides. A larger pool would produce efficiencies of scale and drive costs down. For any such extension to be remotely acceptable the fee for registration would have to be fully reimbursed by local authorities and colleges. The present GTCW scored its biggest own goal by making teachers pay out of their own pockets.

Second, the current hearings procedure could do with overhauling. Reforms should aim to generate and promote confidence in the teaching workforce while striking a balance so that an individual's private life is not subject to a media circus. The costs of hearings need to be scaled back and the composition of hearings panels become more representative of school staff, parents and employers.

Third, registration procedures need to be more closely aligned with the safeguarding mechanisms presented by the CRB check and the Independent Safeguarding Authority. It is simply not acceptable that CRB checks are not portable across Wales and that some staff have to pay for multiple checks.

As the chickens come home to roost for Michael Gove, Welsh education minister Leighton Andrews must be relieved that he behaved with restraint over the future of the GTCW. Wisdom is required, not rhetoric and rant, as the education community considers how best to protect our children, promote the profession, and enhance the esteem of teachers, support staff, lecturers and heads.

Dr Phil Dixon, Director, Association of Teachers and Lecturers Cymru.

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