Proposals for modernising the role of the profession's gatekeeper do not go far enough, says Gordon Kirk.
THE INDEPENDENT review of the General Teaching Council, initiated by Helen Liddell last December and promised for the end of April, finally became publicly available in mid-July, accompanied by a consultation paper from the Scottish Executive Education Department.
The principal aims were to assess the effectiveness of the GTC in enhancing the professionalism of teachers in Scotland and to establish what scope there was for modernising the council's composition and mode of operation.
However, since the minister envisaged the council as "a pace-setter for the teaching profession in the 21st century", it was fully anticipated that the extension of the powers of the council would be on the agenda.
The consultants have sought to benchmark GTC practices against those in other comparable bodies. The recommendations are constructive and should certainly provide a stimulus to the further development of the council.
The overall assessment is that the GTC's activities "are presently delivered effectively and with due concern for statutory and other constraints". On the mode of operation of the council, the review comes up with a number of sensible suggestions, including streamlining the committee structure, expansion of the register of teachers, wider sanctions in discipline cases, establishing online access to appropriate aspects of the register for employers and improving the processes required in the collection of registration fees. These are likely to win wide acceptance.
Significant discussion will be stimulated by the recommendations on the composition of the council. The review found that, compared to other similar organisations, the council was not out of line in having 49 members. Nevertheless, the report proposes to reduce this to 39 and, in an endeavour to tighten the accountability of the GTC to the profession, to make provision for headteachers and special groups of teachers, such as those working in preschool settings.
Much the most important part of the review concerns the extension of the council's powers. There are two key issues here. The first concerns the council's involvement in teacher incompetence. Its credibility over the years has been weakened by not having the authority to remove teachers from the register on grounds of incompetence, while being able to remove them on grounds of professional misconduct.
The review concludes that the GTC should be entitled to maintain a record of those who are dismissed on incompetence grounds and should subsequently be able to decide whether the degree of incompetence is sufficient to justify removal from the register.
A further protection for pupils and the education service is provided by allowing the council to decide whether the grounds for dismissal are sufficient to justify removal from the register. Of course, no one expects this power to be invoked on any significant scale. However, it is indisputable that the council should have it.
A more controversial area concerns the GTC's responsibilities in the area of continuing professional development. It has long been recognised that as long as the council had no statutory role in continuing professional development its effectiveness as the custodian of professional standards was limited. The reviewers have noted that there was strong support from teachers themselves - two-thirds of them expressing this preference - for an extension of the council's role.
Many of the recommendations made have been provisionally accepted by the Executive. These include the right to advise teachers, employers and ministers on the framework of competences spanning the different stages of a teacher's career; the commissioning of research on the development needs of teachers; the provision of advice on staff development; the inclusion of a record of professional development on the register; and, curiously, responsibility for advising ministers and education authorities on the take-up of professional development using anonymised data.
Two further powers are considered but it is judged inopportune to introduce them at present. The first of these concerns the provision of an "active register". The issue here is whether continued registration should depend on the completion of authenticated development. While a requirement of that kind would undoubtedly confer on teachers an entitlement to professional development, it is already clear that authorities might find it extremely difficult to ensure that sufficient opportunities could be provided consistently across the country.
The other aspect of professional development the review considers should be shelved concerns the accreditation of provision. It is argued that, in principle, "it would be helpful to vest such a responsibility in a body which could take a dispassionate view (not being itself a provider) on an all Scotland basis".
Disappointingly, the review concludes that that responsibility "should be a matter for further review", once the GTC has demonstrated its ability to discharge the other professional development responsibilities that are recommended. Apparently, the only reason found for this disappointing conclusion is that it would be "labour intensive".
Already the council has demonstrated the capacity to accredit programmes of initial teacher education through its own membership and through ensuring that panels draw on appropriate external members. There is no reason the same responsibility could not be assumed now and it is to be hoped that on this matter the Scottish Executive will be persuaded to reconsider its position.
Professor Gordon Kirk is dean of Edinburgh University education faculty and vice-chairman of the GTC.