Playing the media game;Platform;Opinion;News and opinion

10th December 1999 at 00:00
Teachers cannot afford to ignore the vast media experience of the new General Teaching Council chairman, despite his lack of teaching credentials, argues Huw Thomas.

REACTION to the controversial appointment of David Puttnam as inaugural chair of the General Teaching Council has provoked a much-needed debate over its nature and purpose. The charge against Puttnam is that he lacks relevant experience, never having been a teacher. Such responses matter because they indicate an underlying image of what the GTC should be. Why should the body that has been called "a voice for the teaching profession" be chaired by a teacher?

The idea that we are in some cloistered profession, that can be understood only by an inner sanctum, is dead. A successful representative for the profession will recognise the stake in education the wider public holds. Of course it's irritating when we sit in the pub listening to those who have never done our job lecturing us on how easy it must be. And of course there is a unique perspective on this job that comes only from doing it. But we shouldn't be too precious about this. Since the Seventies, when high-profile cases of concern raised the public's questions about what was going on in schools, there has been a period in which classroom doors have been opened. Everyone, from parents to the media, has had a good look at what is going on inside our schools. Questions have been asked, sacred cows slain and an air of practical realism injected into the debate about education. That's why it's so important that this council should not be purely made up of teachers or chaired by one. Half the places on the council are to be taken up by teachers or headteachers but the rest will be government appointees or representatives of other bodies connected with education. The aim must be to provide a body that opens up the profession and educates the public about classroom practice. If we don't, the Daily Mail and Her Majesty's chief inspector will.

From this perspective, the appointment of Lord Puttnam is a defining move, setting an agenda that has more to do with communication than protest, more about getting things done than whinging about what is being done. Everyone has some experience of teaching, through doing it or being on the receiving end. A 16-year-old school-leaver, as Puttnam was, has a very special perspective. In this new climate the council that represents teachers can now position itself above the squabbling of inspectors, politicians and other semi representatives.

Take the issue of professional incompetence. Chris Woodhead gained many column inches from his much-quoted figure of 15,000 failing teachers. It was a clever piece of media manipulation and, although the statistic was bogus, he chose what he said and how he said it with care. In terms of media management it was Woodhead's master stroke. We need to see teachers lifting the professional discourse above the place to which such voices have taken it. Instead of knee-jerk calls for his sacking we desperately need a body that can treat such issues with the seriousness they deserve. We need a body that can accept such common sense facts as the varying levels of competence in the profession, can examine the reasons and remedies for the problem and do it in a way that commands the respect of politicians and the confidence of the public.

If the council can raise the level of debate it will find willing listeners. People respect teachers and will listen to what we say, but they need the chance to hear those voices clearly.

The contributions of people like Woodhead and other popular pundits are dangerous, not so much because of what they say but where they get to say it. So I find it alarming that, in the face of such manipulative use of the media, the emergence of the GTC has yet to be fully publicised within our staffrooms, let alone reaching a wider audience.

The worst scenario is that we are lumbered with a poorly-elected group that lacks a mandate from the mass of the profession. We already have half a dozen unions. Fullness of representation will give this council authority, removing any chance of the government of the day slickly telling the public what teachers think or what teachers need. As a "voice of the profession" the GTC will need to develop the authority and presentation that will gain it the public's respect. That, more than anything else, will give it some teeth.

In the first 18 months, while it finds its way round this tricky course, it has an opportunity to make the most of a gifted communicator who knows the media and New Labour well, but has an independent mind and, after all, is in the job only until the council elects its own chair 18 months after commencing its duties. In the meantime, Lord Puttnam will enjoy the scrutiny of this profession. My advice to him during the next few months would be to take a trip round the country, talking to teachers. For our part, teachers will be looking for his independent credentials but, in expecting him to prove he is no government poodle we should not ask him to become the lap-dog of the profession.

Huw Thomas is a primary teacher and nominee for the

primary teacher constituency in the elections to the GTC

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