Secret life of teachers finds an audience

1st April 2005 at 01:00
Are we quite sure that the General Teaching Council was a good idea? I am prompted to ask by last week's TES. I would wager a small sum that last week was the first time the words "prostitute" and "penis" had appeared in the headlines of this esteemed journal and a larger sum that they had never previously appeared in the same issue. Both referred to cases before England's GTC.

The first concerned a Coventry teacher who acted as a prostitute's driver; the second a Carlisle teacher who had instructed a "mixed class" of 12-year-olds to draw a circumcised penis. This was quite mild stuff for the GTC. Just as reports of General Medical Council hearings create the impression that most doctors are sex maniacs, so GTC reports suggest that a school day routinely involves bonking in the chemistry lab and tying children to chairs. Once, the papers relied on the divorce courts for salacious material, but now they have turned to industrial tribunals and professional conduct councils for tales of sexual harassment and workplace affairs. Divorce from a job rather than from a spouse now leads the British to reveal their intimate secrets. But did anyone predict what GTC hearings would do teachers' image? Teachers had long aspired to a body that allowed them to regulate their own professional standards, as the General Medical Council does for doctors, the General Dental Council for dentists, the Bar Council for barristers and so on, but I was always sceptical.

Teaching, I say, is a craft rather than a profession. (Journalism, since you ask, is a mere trade.) Like plumbing, bricklaying or hairdressing, it requires high levels of training, skill and experience, but not a body of esoteric knowledge such as doctors or lawyers possess. Some teachers may find this offensive. They should not. We should esteem crafts at least as highly as professions which, as George Bernard Shaw observed, are usually conspiracies against the layman. This, after all, is the issue behind the argument over A-levels and vocational qualifications and whether we need a single diploma for school leavers. Teachers say they favour parity of esteem for vocational subjects, but their own aspirations for professional status reveal some hypocrisy on this score. You know something is a craft when the unqualified fancy a go at it themselves. Britain is full of sloping bookshelves, dangerous electrical wiring and bad plumbing installed by DIY enthusiasts. The middle-classes in particular should heed Hilaire Belloc's poem: "Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric Light Himself. It struck him dead: and serve him right! It is the business of the wealthy man To give employment to the artisan."

You cannot imagine a householder trying his hand at removing an appendix or popping into court on his day off to argue with the judge. But teaching is prime territory for DIY, with WH Smith performing the role of Homebase.

There could be as many as 170,000 UK families educating their children at home and, in America, the home-schooled have risen to 2.2 per cent of the child population. Teachers are also familiar with parents who try to "help out" with reading at home and "assist" with the national curriculum. Just like plumbers, teachers often have to undo botched jobs.

So the GTC may have been the result of what philosophers call a category error. That, at least, is my view. But I shall continue to read the TES reports with a guilty pleasure and look forward to more unusual words in the headlines.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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