Teaching council must learn how to raise its game

30th October 2009 at 00:00
The GTWC is a `good thing' but it has to become a lot better

The old saying that "the good is the enemy of the best" sums up the current predicament of the General Teaching Council for Wales. In the words of 1066 and All That, the GTCW is a "good thing" - but it has to become a lot better.

Since its creation, it has raised the profile of the profession as a profession. It has proved to the public that the old joke that "those who can't, teach" is unfair, and helped rehabilitate teaching as a worthwhile career. Its now threatened bursary scheme has guaranteed that teachers have some control over their continuing professional development. But it is still the case that, despite having made a positive impact on the educational landscape, the GTCW remains unloved by teachers. The increase in the registration fee - the "Welsh teacher tax" - has only alienated the profession still further. It is high time the profession and its professional body re-engaged.

Ironically, there are "three Rs" that need to be addressed to begin that process of rapprochement: registration, representation and regulation. All teachers in the maintained sector in Wales have to be registered with the GTCW as a condition of their employment. It is not the principle of such a requirement that causes problems, but the practice.

Earlier this term, I was told about a teacher in north Wales who had crossed the border from Chester. She accepted that she would have to complete a Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check for her new authority (the portability of the checks is an issue for another time) but, fully registered with the GTC in England, she was surprised to find that she had to undergo a further check to be registered with the Welsh teaching council - at her own expense.

Subsequent inquiries revealed this was not an isolated instance. Some teachers have not been paid in full while their registration with the GTCW is processed, even though they are registered with the GTCE. These barriers to reciprocity of registration need to be examined. Why does the GTCW insist on a CRB check when its counterpart in England does not? The GTCW admits Assembly legislation in this matter is enabling rather than prescriptive - it doesn't have to do it. The advent of the Independent Safeguarding Authority gives the GTCW a golden opportunity to review its practice in this regard.

The second area that needs a fresh look is the question of representation on the council itself. At present, this is made up of 25 members, 12 of whom are elected and 13 appointed in various ways. In governance terms, this is a halfway house between the General Medical Council, in which all members are appointed, and the Law Society, in which nearly all members are elected. Obviously, the core functions of a body determine its composition, but if the GTCW wants to become more representative of the profession, perhaps the balance needs to tip in favour of elected rather than appointed members.

The council also needs to consider whether it would not be better to follow the English model whereby teacher unions are guaranteed seats on the council as of right. Despite the disingenuous claim on the GTCW's website that "nine members are appointed following nominations made by the teacher unions and other educational organisations", it remains the case that significant voices of the profession can be and are missing from the table. Key unions can find themselves without representation on the council, alienating their member still further.

Finally, we must look again at regulation, and the high-profile teacher trials that flow from it. Few would argue that teachers should be exempt from following a code of conduct and professional practice. It is reassuring that mechanisms exist to remove unsuitable teachers from the classroom, just as doctors and lawyers can be struck off and priests defrocked. Such sanctions retain public confidence in the professions. But the GTCW hearings leave a lot to be desired. There seems to be little consistency in panels' judgments, with similar cases being treated in different ways. There has been no engagement with the profession about the "public interest" defence, the GTCW implying that it alone can decide what is in the public interest. Finally, there is unresolved conflict over how much a teacher's private behaviour should be scrutinised in relation to their professional life.

There is a very good case to be made that the profession's regulatory body should play a much greater part in deciding what are the key elements required to practise. Consultation is currently under way in Scotland about the role the GTCS should play in this regard. Eventually, the GTCW could take on responsibility for teacher standards - from initial training to headship. Key to that will be winning the support of the profession. Despite the sound and fury of recent months, the GTCW is here to stay. But it desperately needs to shift the profession's perception that it is a necessary evil. It has to become a lot better.

Dr Philip Dixon, Director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers Cymru.

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