Save England's GTC? It's useless at getting rid of bad apples and costs too much. But at least it's worth a laugh

15th October 2010 at 01:00

In the current climate of austerity and cuts, there are few opportunities in the public sector for genuine, side-splitting belly laughs.

So we should all be grateful to the chief executives of the General Teaching Council for Scotland and Wales, respectively, for giving us a real corker.

In the wake of Education Secretary Michael Gove's promised abolition of England's GTC, the two men have painted a terrifying picture. Scotland and Wales risk, they warn, being flooded with incompetent or banned teachers escaping from England. These reprobates will, it seems, scarper across the border and bring utter chaos to Celtic teaching. Schools, clueless as to teachers' competence, will be sitting ducks for these incompetent entryists.

Quick! Hold on to the GTC. The world is about to end! How will the profession ever cope with the its abolition?

Mr Finn and Mr Brace, the respective chief executives, have short memories. Shorter than a decade, as that's how long the GTC has been around. I don't recall them, or anyone else, screaming before the establishment of the GTCs about the need to root out incompetent teachers. I certainly don't recall them doing so as chief executives of their GTCs.

But I do recall the education establishment screaming blue murder when anyone ever dares suggest there are incompetent teachers who need rooting out. Chris Woodhead's claim that there were 15,000 of them was greeted not with relief that at last an insider was highlighting the problem, but widespread demand for his removal as chief inspector.

There are few things more hysterical - in both senses of the word - than quango chief executives desperately trumpeting arguments which would embarrass a six-year-old to justify their continued funding.

There were incompetent teachers before the GTC was established, there have been incompetent teachers since, and there will be incompetent teachers when it has gone. The GTC has had almost no impact in rooting out such teachers - famously, Panorama established that only 18 teachers had been struck off in all the years of the GTC's existence.

The GTC maintains a list of them, and of those sacked for incompetence. Big deal. I would happily maintain such a list for 20 quid, with a laptop and ten minutes a day to update it.

If that's the best the GTC can find as a defence of its existence - and it is - then the sooner we revert to the status quo ante of ten years ago, the better for the public finances.

Not that anyone should be surprised. In 2004, I published a biography of David Blunkett, the education secretary under whose watch the GTC emerged. The story of its establishment was an archetype of Labour in power and the clearest demonstration of the GTC's pointlessness.

For every worthwhile reform introduced by Labour, there were many others which took time and money for no benefit, and which sometimes made things worse. Education action zones were an example of an idea which was great in theory but utterly flawed in execution. The aim was to allow all sorts of experimentation in the designated zones.

Naturally, they were opposed by local education authorities, which always fight any diminution of their power. But the only bodies from which potential providers could obtain the figures and statistics which were a key part of any bid were the LEAs, which used every bureaucratic wheeze to frustrate them.

The GTC was another idea that was fine in theory, as an attempt to inculcate a greater sense of professionalism, but a waste of time and money in practice, as no more than a talking shop.

David Blunkett championed the idea, but its implementation fell to Stephen Byers, his deputy, who had almost no interest in it and wanted to get it out of the way with as little effort as possible.

The unions were determined to strangle at birth any idea of the GTC as an alternative teaching voice and demanded reserved seats on the body. Rather than rejecting them out of hand - the presence of union reps on a supposed professional body was inimical to its basic purpose - Byers, who had no intention of fighting a battle with the unions over an issue he couldn't care less about when he knew there were plenty of worthwhile fights to come, simply gave them what they wanted. He thus negated from the start the GTC's intended purpose.

And from the outset its line was - not surprisingly, given the above - identical to that of the unions: the national curriculum and the national literacy and numeracy strategies had driven the fun and professionalism out of teaching. Teachers were wonderful. Government should stop interfering. LEAs should be championed and moves towards parental choice resisted.

There was a further flaw: any chance the GTC might have had as a serious professional body was ruined, as one central figure put it to me, by "very poorly drafted legislation". It is a Whitehall truism that officials resist establishing bodies with power which might dilute their own. Although the GTC was viewed by its champions within Blunkett's team as a counter-balance to the unions, it was never given the strength to act as such. Indeed, Byers' determination to establish it with the least cost to his political capital ensured that outcome from the start.

And membership was voluntary, which meant that even if it had not suffered the flaws I have outlined, it would lack credibility as a genuine professional body, and so was never seen as more than a minor player within education debates.

If the GTC is as important as its defenders maintain, there is a very simple solution. Carry on. But don't expect the taxpayer to pay for it. Get the teachers, who supposedly value it so highly, to pay for it themselves.

Stephen Pollard is editor of The Jewish Chronicle and author of David Blunkett.

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