Out of stormy seas

27th February 2004 at 00:00
Despite a rough ride, the General Teaching Council is proving itself a winner, writes Andrew Connell

Smarting from recent unflattering TES comments on its profile and a glum preview of its upcoming elections (January 31 and February 20), the General Teaching Council for England might be tempted to snarl "Infamy - they've all got it in for me!" and "Carry on regardless". But as a founder member I'm optimistic that we have resolved our initial difficulties, and that we will increasingly communicate to teachers reasons to believe that we work effectively to support their professionalism.

A teaching council was a Victorian conception, eventually delivered by Parliament in 1998 and taking its first steps in 2000. Advocates of the GTC hoped it would "symbolize a sea-change in the relationship of teaching and government". But, though the Government had chosen a high-profile chairman in Lord Puttnam, producer of inspirational movies, with Carol Adams, an experienced, sharp-witted educational administrator, as chief executive, it should have done more through media publicity to make teachers aware of the GTC. Many, preoccupied with Ofsted, the pay threshold and Curriculum 2000, and accustomed to ignoring unsolicited, dull-looking letters, excluded themselves from the inaugural elections. Nevertheless there were about 200 candidates for 25 places, and some 100,000 votes cast.

The teachers elected to the council in 2000 were joined by nine more nominated by their unions, and 17 representatives of stakeholder organisations. Another 13 members were nominees of the Secretary of State.

Most were teachers, though some critics remain convinced that "hangers-on" outnumber the genuine article (TES Letters, February 13). The scenario of non-teachers plus a handful of quislings taking control was always beyond belief: the lay members are typically very supportive of teachers.

More credible was the anxiety that the GTC would try to monopolise dialogue with government. Some members felt it their duty to safeguard the status of their unions by questioning the extent of the GTC remit. In the showpiece meetings of the full council the painstaking raising of points of order reacted with the caution and inexperience of many members to produce an atmosphere heavy with boredom and masterly inactivity. Press coverage was soon focused on turf wars, and the union campaign against the registration fee, a Whitehall farce that ended well; as should have been established from the start, government effectively paid.

Simultaneously staff and members of the GTC were generating good feeling in a series of generally well-attended, but largely unreported, regional meetings where teachers could discuss what made them proud and confident, as well as what made them anxious, and feel that they were being listened to. By its second year the mood of the council lightened. Members knew each other better, and symbiosis between the GTC and the unions was evolving. As the quality of discussion in committee improved, the first elected chair, John Beattie, a seasoned union man, moderate and calm, was able to steer council meetings into more constructive waters.

The GTC can now point to solid achievements designed to foster teachers' self-belief. Its diligent staff has largely completed the statutory and Herculean labour of setting up the professional register. In the hearing of conduct and competence cases by members, necessary if registered status is to carry credibility, the GTC has established an "investigative, not adversarial" approach, and steered a thoughtful course between sensationalism and secretiveness. Its codes form part of induction standards and it confers qualified teacher status. Specific issues on which it has gathered evidence from teachers through conferences and forums include retention, assessment and accountability. Its work on continuing professional development has produced a teacher learning academy currently being piloted in Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield. The schools standards minister, David Miliband, commends "authoritative advice" providing "valuable input" to government strategy (TES, February 13).

Whether he finds GTC warnings on initiative overload equally authoritative remains to be seen. In the council's early days a member asked for a resolution to the Government highlighting the demoralising effect on teachers of initiatives flowing from what seemed to me to be a DfES cult of permanent revolution.

The proposal was seen as rash, and got little support, but eventually, after its survey of teachers revealed initiatives as a major anxiety, the GTC did advise the Government of its findings. Arguably this measured process was the right one to follow, but I think we will sometimes have to risk telling ministers promptly and unequivocally things they may not want to hear. Of course, the GTC must avoid casting itself in caricature roles, whether of neanderthal cynic, irritably demanding to be left alone, or of high-tech visionary, deferentially babbling educationspeak rarely heard among real teachers.

How best to present clear and influential advice in the professional interests of teachers, and how best to engage with teachers themselves, will be questions to be debated with confidence and enjoyment in the next council .

Letters 26

Andrew Connell teaches history in a Cumbria secondary school and is a member of the GTC for England

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