Welsh teachers seem uninterested in their GTC. It is because they are confused about its role? Jon Slater reports
Perhaps they were all too busy marking. But the fact that fewer than 10 teachers made the time to tell the General Teaching Council for Wales what standards to expect of the profession is a sharp reminder that the GTCW still has to prove itself, more than six months after being set up.
The meeting in Pontypridd, near Cardiff, was the third of five being held across the principality offering teachers "ownership" of their new professional code.
Gary Brace, chief executive of the GTCW, admits to being disappointed by the turn-out at the meetings so far. But he remains convinced that the council can prove its worth to teachers. "The reaction so far has been lukewarm. It's very difficult to get hold of what a GTC is. What does it do, as opposed to what do unions do, for example? People think, 'We have a union, why do we need a general teaching council?' It will take some time for the profession to see what exactly it is that the council does."
The confusion is understandable. In addition to the regional meetings, every teacher is being sent what amounts to little more than a blank sheet of paper inviting them to write their thoughts on the professional code.
Frank Bonello, an elected member of the council and a classroom teacher for 26 years, said: "We want to be independent. We have to set a code of practice that people will adhere to and not feel threatened by." However, much of the GTCW's first six months has been spent on administrative concerns such as registration, and on those issues such as the code of practice and disciplinary procedures that tend to bring it into conflict with the unions.
Gethin Lewis, secretary of the National Union of Teachers Cymru, believes the council has focused on the wrong issues. "It would be better if they concentrated on morale and status and the recruitment and retention problem which are as bad in Wales as they are in England," he said.
The NUT in Wales has also been vocal about the registration fee. At its January meeting the GTCW voted against setting the fee at pound;35.
The council now hopes that the Welsh Assembly will foot part of the bill. Given the English decision to subsidise GTC fees, Mr Brace is hopeful. "That (decision) strengthens our arm considerably with the Assembly to ensure that teachers in Wales do not have to pay more than teachers in England. I don't think it would be acceptable to have a differential fee," he said.
But as well as kicking up a fuss about the size of the fee, the NUT asks whether teachers should have to pay to join the GTCW at all. "I don't like the principle of a fee full-stop. Teachers are having to pay for a new quango which may be more interested in disciplning teachers than in promoting the profession," Mr Lewis said. Like its colleagues in England, the NUT in Wales is also opposed to money being automatically deducted from pay packets. It claims that the fee will be inflated by a council decision to build up a "pound;69,000 legal fund" to fight high-profile court cases over disciplinary matters. While the GTCW admits it will set aside cash for legal costs, it says the NUT is "mischief-making".
But other unions have been less critical. Alun Jones of the National Association of Head Teachers believes that the GTCW is making progress and needs more time to prove itself. "We all wanted a GTC. It galls me to see that a union like the NUT now puts articles in the press saying that members are complaining."
His views are backed up by Mr Bonello and another council member, Gwen Williams. "According to the press, one union seems to be slanted against us. I abhor that negativity," she said. Both are members of other unions and say their teaching colleagues have been curious, rather than negative, about the GTCW. Critics have also accused the NUT of voting as a block on the council, something they see as potentially divisive and damaging.
But while the NUT's aggressive stance may cause short-term difficulties, it is the GTCW's popularity among ordinary teachers that will determine its success in the long term. As in England, a key area will be whether it is seen to improve teachers' lives by gaining concessions from politicians - although most of the GTCW's efforts will be focused on the Assembly in Cardiff rather than Westminster.
Continuing professional development (CPD), recruitment and retention of teachers are likely to be taken up by the council in the next few months. The Assembly recently issued a consultation paper on early professional development for teachers and the council is likely to press for an entitlement to CPD throughout a teacher's career.
The council appears less certain about how to make its mark on teacher recruitment. While Mr Brace is adamant that pay and conditions fall outside the remit of the GTCW, some members appear keen to support calls for better working conditions.
Certainly, those teachers who did attend the meeting in Pontypridd appeared more concerned with their workload than with the code of practice. Julia Burns, a member of UCAC, the Welsh language union, said: "The real truth is that teachers haven't got time to come to meetings like this," she said. But she was impressed by the obvious desire of council members to represent teachers' interests. "I came with a sceptical attitude. But I feel more reassured now."
The challenge for the GTCW now is to get that message across to the thousands of Welsh teachers who turned down the GTCW's invite as one meeting too many.