The fledgling General Teaching Council may confound its critics and become a forceful voice for teachers, writes Jeremy Sutcliffe
The proposed General Teaching Council for England has been called "a toothless tiger" and "a Mickey Mouse outfit". It will, initially at least, wield far less power than its established Scottish counterpart or the doctors' equivalent, the General Medical Council - seen by many as the ideal professional role model.
It is felt in some quarters that ministers are not wholly serious about creating a body that will have real influence, or that they don't trust teachers enough to give them real statutory clout.
A simple comparison with the Scottish teaching council and the even more powerful GMC (see below) is instructive. While the English teaching body will have legal powers to discipline members for misconduct or incompetence, it will have little formal power to influence entry standards to the profession or the quality of teacher training. In contrast, the long-established General Medical Council has wide-ranging powers to set training standards, approve and inspect medical courses and monitor degree standards.
Charles Clarke, the education minister responsible for setting up the new teaching body for England, rebuts the view that it will have no real influence or power.
"We positively want a strong united voice for the profession that speaks for teachers and is representative of teachers," he says.
"The reason why we want that is that we believe that one of the weaknesses in the development of education over the past 30 or 40 years has been the absence of a single coherent teaching voice. And in fact, the trade union divisions have weakened the voice of teachers when it comes to actively influencing education policy for the better."
His comments will frustrate teachers' leaders, already sceptical as to whether the GTC will be able to represent the collective views of the profession. Yet the minister's hint that he would like to see the new body have real influence on policy in future will tantalise those who believe the profession's views have been ignored for far too long.
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, believes teachers should adopt a "wait-and-see" approach.
"Ministers are saying it's going to be the authentic voice of the profession. Let's see what happens when it comes up with views which differ from those of the Government," he says.
While believing the council's long-term prospects are potentially good, Mr de Gruchy believes the Government will have difficulty getting it off the ground as professional distrust of new initiatives is so great. "It's not going to solve the most immediate and fundamental problems facing teachers, such as pay, workload, bureaucracy, constant change and pupil indiscipline. For most teachers in current circumstances it's almost an irrelevance."
However, sceptics may be heartened by the history of the Scottish GTC, set up in the 1960s at a time when the profession's views were being ignored. This coincided with a chronic teacher shortage, concern about teaching standards, low morale and low status.
Thirty years later, Scottish teachers have higher morale and status than their English counterparts and better recruitment levels. Its greater statutory powers over entry standards have almost certainly helped to make it heard.
But statutory powers aside, it has played an important advisory role in fighting off unpopular policies imposed by Tory education ministers in England. "I believe it has inhibited the Scottish Office from some of the wilder fancies that have been tried south of the border," says Gordon Kirk, principal of Moray House Institute of Education and vice-chair of the Scottish GTC.
It is this potential role that the strongest supporters for the English teaching council see as crucial. "Those who say it won't have teeth are gravely underestimating its potential for good," argues Mike Newby, chair of the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers, which represents departments of teacher education .
"It will have a statutory responsibility to advise the Secretary of State on important issues like entry standards, the nature of the training process, the development of teachers once in the profession and on all associated matters.
"Of course, they can't legislate. But they will be in a very influential position. One of the reasons for that is that the GTC will for the first time speak for the whole of the profession and not just for a particular section."
Professor Newby believes the GTC will have unrivalled authority in speaking up for a profession which feels beleaguered and ignored. Equally, it will provide a powerful counterweight to other players in the policy and opinion-forming fields, such as the Teacher Training Agency and the Office for Standards in Education.
Another enthusiast is Carol Adams, chief education officer in Shropshire and chair of a Government task group which has been looking at ways of spreading good ideas and good practice in schools. She believes the GTC will not only give teachers a real voice in the big debates about standards and teaching methods ("the heartland of what teachers know about") but also play an active role in promoting teaching and supporting career development. She envisages a teaching council which will organise seminars and discussions, establish networks, and develop strategies to raise professional morale and encourage high standards of teaching through a process of continuous profession development.
Whether such voices will be enough to overcome the cynicism and mistrust in many staffrooms, and persuade teachers to seize the initiative ministers insist they are being offered, is yet to be seen.
Many questions remain . How influential will the bloc of elected teacher members be - who with trade union nominees will have a potential controlling voice on the council? Will the unions run slates to try and get their representatives into elected posts? What will be the influence of the "representative bodies" (made up of representatives from the wider community such as local government, governors, the churches and business)?
Most important of all, who will the council members choose to chair the new body? He or she, more than anyone else, is likely to become the voice of the profession.
The GTC's success or failure will depend heavily on who ministers appoint to the key role of chief executive and charge with the task of setting the council up (at a salary of around pound;80,000 a year).
This, says Charles Clarke, will involve developing its advisory role, considering its approach to setting standards and linking up with other professional bodies. The person appointed will, he says, "have to demonstrate the ability to lead the profession at a key period of its history".
The announcement this week that some of the Teacher Training Agency's powers will transfer to the Department for Education and Employment raises questions about the agency's future, and its relationship with the GTC.
Mr Clarke says he expects the role of the GTC to evolve and that its relationship with the TTA will not be the same in five years time. By then, he says, it will itself have decided what responsibilities it wants to take on and everyone will be able to see how effective it is.
This evolutionary process implies that the GTC will be on probation. If it is seen to to be an effective body, playing the sort of responsible leadership role ministers would like to see, it will undoubtedly be given more powers, perhaps ultimately taking on the TTA's core role of funding and overseeing teacher training. Some would argue that, by attempting to keep it on a leash, the Government is trying to make sure it acts as its poodle.
Sceptics will point out that ministers have shown little sign of wanting to take advice on any issue once their minds are made up. They point to attempts to impose an unpopular performance-related pay scheme as a typical example. Yet supporters argue that it is precisely this kind of issue where a GTC can make a key difference, by ensuring the scheme which is eventually implemented is acceptable to teachers.
Wishful thinking, maybe, but the poodle could yet turn out to be a tiger. It may even have teeth.
HOW THE NEW GTC MATCHES UP TO ITS ROLE MODELS
General Teaching Council for England:
Established: September 2000
Membership: 64, including:
* 25 elected teachers
* 9 teachers appointed by the main teaching unions
* 17 members appointed by "representative bodies"
* 13 members appointed by the Secretary of State
* maintain register of qualified teachers
* discipline teachers for misconduct or incompetence
* advise on professional issues, including training, career development and
recruitmentExpected number on register: 470,000 Expected registration fee:
General Teaching Council for Scotland
Membership: 49, including:
* 30 elected teachers
* 15 members appointed by higher education institutions, local authorities and the churches
* 4 members appointed by the First Minister for Scotland Responsibilities:
* maintain register of qualified teachers
* discipline teachers for misconduct
* oversee standards of entry to the profession
* accredit and review courses of initial teacher education
* support probationary teachers by means of seminars, visits and publications
* advise on the supply of teachersNumber on register: 75,000
Registration fee: pound;20
GENERAL MEDICAL COUNCIL
Membership: 104, including:
* 54 elected doctors
* 25 members of the public nominated by the Privy Council
* 25 doctors appointed by educa tional bodies, including universities and medical royal colleges
* maintain register of qualified doctors
* discipline doctors for misconduct or incompetence
* promote good practice and give guidance to doctors
* inspect and monitor medical degree courses
* set training standards for junior doctors; work with medical royal colleges and training bodies to promote high postgraduate standards
Number on register: 190,000
Registration fee: pound;80