To serve them all our days

29th November 2002 at 00:00
Society will have better schools if it puts its faith in self-regulation, not codes and compulsion, says Bart McGettrick

ONE of the current issues in society generally is whether there are grounds for hope in the professions in Scotland. There are many professions which have been rocked by scandals and blame in recent years, and the issue arises whether the teaching profession is any different?

Is there a different view of the professions in Scottish society? It is interesting to note, for example, that it is a requirement of the General Teaching Council for England to provide a written codification of professional ethics. This has not been a requirement in Scotland although the teaching profession itself has identified the need to prepare a codification of behaviour. There is a tradition of social trust and ethical practice in the rather tight-knit communities of Scotland. But, in an increasingly litigious world, is this enough?

The General Teaching Council for Scotland was established in 1965 and was the first of its kind in the world. Many countries have subsequently taken an interest in this self-regulatory body. It is an example of the leadership that has been given internationally by Scotland within the professions. Since the 1970s there has been an increase in the tendencies towards external accountability. Society has demanded value for money, has produced charters for consumers of all kinds, has expressed the rights of the consumer or the client and has generally looked for increased accountability by placing demands on professions and other service providers to offer a better service.

Few would take exception to these developments. Yet there are two effects which are worth considering. First, there is the tendency to consider the measured outcomes of the professions. Do we wish to be taught by the effective teacher or by an inspirational one? This is not to suggest that these are opposites or alternatives, but to indicate that there is more to the professional qualities than efficiency and effectiveness. It has to be balanced with evidence that comes from professional discernment. Evidence of care, compassion, beauty, inspiration is not best found in the domain of measurement.

Second, there has been an imbalance between internal accountability and external accountability. It is a matter for a professional to be aware of the internal accountability for professional success and good service. The professional person has a capacity for self-evaluation and self-reflection, constantly upgrading skills and monitoring their professional practice. A professional teacher will always work so that they deal with an individual with their best interests in mind, and the interests of society as a whole. The concept of "the common good" implies that decisions are taken which are to the benefit of all society. These benefits may be moral, social andor material.

Over the years, there has been much written about what it is to be a professional. A profession is a group of people entrusted by the public to work with dangerous modalities, which I explain below, in the common good. The trust of the public arises from the confidence that the public has in the processes and procedures the profession uses. Professionals are also trained and educated by academics and by professional practitioners.

A professional person is not only a functional person. The "advanced professional" serves beyond functional capability, and touches the inner self of society by their gifts. Recent developments in defining the qualities of the chartered teacher link with this thought.

It may be a curious element of a profession to claim that it is dealing with "dangerous modalities". This means that a professional person is engaged in the use of ideas, skills, procedures which require a high degree of competence to use and exercise. One of the issues facing the professions is the establishment of codes of conduct. There are grounds for hoping that we can continue to encourage the real endeavours of people who are entrusted by society to undertake key tasks in our world, rather than developing codes and a language of compulsion which become the target for frustration or, even worse, avoidance.

here there is prescription there is often the seeking of loopholes. Where there is a spirit and a sense of trust, there can be a quality of commitment that is, or has been, a characteristic of the professions. These are the grounds for hope in the professions in Scotland. It is clear that those who have leadership roles in professional life have to be "values literate" - to be able to read the values of our time, and to be in a position to write them when necessary. In Scotland, the tendency in the professions in terms of codification tends to be based on aspirational statements rather than on detailed legal documents.

The professions will require engagement in providing ethical courage to ensure that decisions and actions are always taken in the common good, and not confined to considerations of political expediency or the whims of the market-place. The need for professional ethical courage has never been more apparent. The grounds for hope are that there is a realisation that professions have a greater long-term impact on society and will not only pay attention to the political imperatives of our time but will take account of the good of society. It will not be the grand plans of government or investment in multinational companies, but quite simply the ways in which, through professional pride and love, we serve others. That is what brings dignity, and it will also give continuing hope.

Bart McGettrick is professor of education at Glasgow University. This article is adapted from his lecture this month to the Royal Society of Arts.

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