Teachers need professional help

26th May 2000 at 01:00
WHAT do the following have in common: knighthoods for head- teachers, education receptions at Buckingham Palace, Hollywood-style teaching awards, and - dare one include it - performance- related pay?

The answer, of course, is that they are all ruses for raising the public image and professional status of teachers. Can they work?

It is a bit like playing snakes and ladders. The "Plato" Awards take you up a few rungs; a National Union of Teachers' conference walk-out sends the image slithering downwards.

But what defines professional status? Like good art, we claim to know it when we see it. We probably regard doctors, solicitors and chartered surveyors as professionals. Journalists, city slickers, and dot.com entrepreneurs fail be-cause they are not gate-keepers or policemen to their peers. On this definition, teachers are not professionals either.

However, from September teachers in England will have their own version of the General Medical Council, the Bar Council and the Law Society. Can the General Teaching Council transform the status of teachers?

Its remit includes advising the Government on standards of professional conduct and on teacher recruitment, training and development. The emphasis is on advice rather than power or control.

There are signs it covets a bigger role. Its chief executive, Carol Adams, wants the GTC to "galvanise into a powerful force to transform the image of teachers". Such ambitions have made some of the teacher unions nervous. They fear being eclipsed.

There is certainly a need for a body to take advantage of the vacuum created by the lack of single, unified union and become the main voice for the profession. Much depends on whether the GTC is robustly independent.

Doctors' organisations do not stand for being told by government how to diagnose and prescribe. The GTC must lead the debate on how and what teachers should teach.

It does not help that it is the creation of government. Will its chairman Lord Puttnam - a "New Labour luvvy" - tell the government when it gets things wrong? Will he do so in public?

However, professional independence means more than just being critical. It means setting the agenda and initiating policies. The GTC has already indicated it wants to commission and publish reserch. This is promising but, unlike much educational research, it must be relevant to policy issues and not be seen as "tame".

The GTC can only promote teaching's professional image if it focuses on children. Too often the profession's contribution to public debate is about the teachers' plight.

Wouldn't it be good if it were a teachers' body, rather than the Department for Education and Employment, which developed the next phase of the literacy or numeracy strategy? Involvement in curriculum and professional development brings a sense of ownership.

It can be done. In Japan, teachers play a central role in developing their national curriculum. In New York's school district 2 teachers, principals and superintendents shape professional development and teaching methods.

Professionally-driven reform must be the GTC's aim. It's hard to imagine a new form of medical treatment being developed without the involvement of doctors. It is equally vital the GTC quickly ceases to be government-funded.

Whether or not we approve, public standing is today also about what you earn. The Government sees recruitment incentives in having some teachers earning up to pound;30,000 with performance pay. Graduates are as interested in what they might earn as what they will start on. This is another area where the GTC can take a wider view than the unions are able to.

Pay bargaining is not part of the GTC's role but it should research, and publicise, the way teachers in some other countries have a higher status as a result of their training, qualifications and salaries. The top civil servant status awarded to the best teachers in France is one example.

Image is also about how teachers view themselves. I was struck by how often speakers at the Easter conferences said they could not wait to leave the profession and urged others not to join.

The primary function of teaching unions is to protect their members' interests, not promote the profession's image. The GTC should leave the fight over pay and conditions to the unions and free itself to be a professional body.

But it must be determined to be independent, controversial, argumentative, bold and radical. Otherwise it will be just another sleepy quango.

Mike Baker is the BBC's education correspondent

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