Teaching council model looks feeble

1st August 1997 at 01:00
The General Teaching Council proposals put forward by the Government add up to a very pale shadow of what such a body should be. It would do little to enhance the status of teaching.

The Government seems nervous of establishing a real professional body. The only clear-cut role envisaged is signing up teachers on to a register. All the other functions would have to be shared with organisations such as the Teacher Training Agency and the Department for Education and Employment itself.

The Government has a credibility problem. It continues with the over-prescription inherited from its predecessor, and has added its own diktats on teaching methods, hours of homework and home-school contracts. All of that sits ill with claims to be promoting professional independence and status.

My union, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, fully supports the establishment of a general teaching council but harbours no illusions that it will solve the most important problems facing the profession. Even a full-blown version would not address the fundamental problem of low status.

The brutal reality is that high status comes from a high salary. No teaching council can compensate for the modest salaries and poor conditions under which teachers currently operate. Yet these are almost taboo subjects. In Scotland, despite the good work of a GTC, salaries, status and indeed educational standards are not significantly different from elsewhere in the UK.

It is no good making simplistic comparisons with the Law Society and the General Medical Council. They have their own traditions and were established at different times. Teachers are not self-employed, independent professionals.

Inside the "GTC in exile" (established in 1985 and now supported by an impressive consensus of the six teacher unions and 30 other bodies), some wanted to develop an over-elaborate code of ethics which gave teachers a false independence. If teachers disagreed with national testing or some other imposition they would be entitled to do their own thing. Ironically, bearing in mind the Government's reluctance to see the unions playing a role in a GTC, it fell to me to point out the profound dangers of such an approach. Teachers could lose their jobs by flouting the law, their contracts and the policies legitimately decided by Parliament, employers and management.

There is much to be said for unions playing a full role in a professional body. Stephen Byers, the minister for school standards, has been making some rather silly and inaccurate remarks about unions only being concerned with pay and conditions and not with professionalism. It is important that members of a teaching council fully understand the interlocking areas of law, contract, professionalism and codes of conduct, ethics and practice.

The Government criticises the profession for not speaking with one voice. Yet when we do, as in the case of the "GTC in exile", the Government ignores that consensus and proposes a very different model.

Far from enhancing status and professionalism, the Government insults teachers by dictating how they should be represented. The consultative document says: "It would be wrong for teacher representatives simply to be nominated by their unions . . . but there may be a case for a limited number of nominations by unions." The Government alleges that they have to be nominated through national or regional ballots so that they can "truly be seen to speak for the profession". Are parents, governors, employers and others to be selected in the same way? How come those organisations can faithfully reflect their members' views but teacher unions cannot?

The Government argues that teacher unions act out of self-interest. Does anyone seriously believe that Government, parents, employers and others do not act likewise?

In the "GTC in exile" there has been unanimity that it will not deal with pay and conditions of service. However, it is idle to pretend that appraisal, barring from the profession and codes of conduct do not have implications for teachers' conditions of service and workload. If there are not people on the inside of a GTC pointing out such important considerations it will run the risk of provoking conflict and misunderstanding with its own profession.

Teachers will need convincing that they must pay Pounds 10 per year to have their unions sidelined and to maintain a very pale shadow of what a real teaching council should be.

* Nigel de Gruchy is general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers

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