Only a single agency will do
The Government's White Paper makes two related proposals, one specific and the other less so. The first deals with powers to remove those who are professionally incompetent and recognises that there are "relatively few teachers who may be failing to meet even the basic standards of professional competence". We can therefore expect that, when it is granted, the new power will be used sparingly. What is indisputable is that the body responsible for standards in teaching should have the entitlement, with full supporting procedures, to remove from the register those deemed unfit to teach.
Over the years, proposals to extend the powers of the GTC have been resisted on the grounds that it was the duty of education authorities, as employers, to dismiss teachers who are shown to be incompetent. There are two weaknesses in that position. First, it fails to distinguish between dismissal and withdrawal of the entitlement to teach. Clearly, if there are good grounds for dismissing a teacher who is incompetent, it should not be possible for that teacher to find employment in teaching elsewhere. Where a teacher is removed from the register for incompetence that possibility is eliminated.
Second, where responsibility for handling incompetence rests with individual employers, there is at least the possibility that inconsistencies of practice and variations of criteria may be found in different parts of the country. That danger was accentuated when, following local government reorganisation, the number of authorities was increased significantly.
Such variations in practice can be eliminated by the adoption of national arrangements operated by a single agency. The GTC is well placed to be that agency. Already, it has established clearly defined and consistent procedures for investigating cases of unprofessional conduct and for the discipline of members. It is to be expected that, as is the case in the present discipline procedures, teachers alleged to be incompetent will have full legal rights and protections in the handling and disposal of their case.
The second extension of powers is less clear. At one point the White Paper states: "The Government believes that the GTC could have an important contribution to make in the setting of high standards of professional development for teachers throughout their careers". At another, it states: "The GTC will be in a stronger position therefore to advise on standards of professional competence and development for teachers throughout their careers. "
What intention lies behind these somewhat vague statements? The GTC might be ascribed the role of the Secretary of State's principal adviser on continuing professional development of teachers. The council currently performs that role in initial training and it would be a natural extension to allow its advisory function to encompass professional development beyond the probationary period.
While the GTC includes the majority of teachers, it is widely representative of educational interests in Scotland. It is the kind of body that might be expected to offer authoritative advice on teachers' professional development needs and the most appropriate way in which these are to be met.
Currently, the Secretary of State is not obliged to accept the advice of the GTC on initial training and it might be legislatively attractive to continue the same arrangement for professional development. It would represent an extremely modest extension of the council's powers and is unlikely to generate massive professional excitement.
The second possibility would be to confer on the GTC the entitlement to accredit all forms of in-service provision. That would constitute a substantial extension of responsibility for it would require all in-service programmes to be approved by the GTC before they could be offered.
Again, that change would build on a power the GTC already has to accredit initial teacher education. It would be a natural development to entitle it to discharge the same responsibility for in-service training. This, however, would be much more demanding. At present, there are six providers of initial teacher education and the task of accrediting them is relatively self-contained. By comparison, in-service provision is extremely varied and it would be vital to ensure that whatever accreditation arrangements were developed took due account of this. It would be out of the question for the GTC to attempt to accredit every single programme.
The GTC would require to adopt procedures for accrediting agencies rather than specific courses. This change has been resisted at pre-service level and has caused enormous duplication of effort in the separate accreditation of individual programmes. A programme-based approach at the in-service level would be unworkable. The magnitude of the task would be lessened if there was a commitment to a national credit accumulation and transfer system. It would still, however, be a substantial task.
A third possibility would be to entitle the GTC to specify the professional development requirements for different categories of worker in the education service, such as qualifications and competences for headteachers, principal teachers and college lecturers. Arguably, a well-ordered system is one in which the competences and qualifications required for different levels of post are explicit. The GTC could undertake that task. It would require to consult extensively. If the GTC did not perform that function, which body would?
Finally, the GTC might be given the power to oversee national arrangements for the appraisal of teachers. It would obviously be the responsibility of the employer to ensure that the appraisal of professional performance was regularly conducted. It might even be stipulated that effective participation in the appraisal system was a condition of registration.
Just as the GTC relies on professional assessments from headteachers at the end of the probationary period to determine whether or not a person should be registered to teach in the first place, so professional assessments from headteachers could be used by the council to determine whether or not a person should remain a registered teacher. If it is considered inappropriate to confer on the GTC such an extension of powers, how, otherwise, is the council to satisfy itself about the professional competence of its members?
Professor Gordon Kirk writes in a personal capacity.