We need a true voice

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
It's about time the General Teaching Council proved itself more than just a costly joke, writes Huw Thomas

Happy birthday to the General Teaching Council: five years old and it still hasn't learned to talk. We often hear about it - the weekly TES reports on disciplinary cabals, with tales of qualification inventing, penis drawing, porn surfing, alcohol stashing and clothes stealing. But it's yet to speak convincingly to the majority of teachers.

The Audit Commission recently graded the profession's view of its council as "apathy". An NASUWT survey of nearly 7,000 teachers found 97 per cent thought the council wasn't good value for money. In the most recent election to the council, the turn-out was a mere 10 per cent - the mandate of a banana republic.

When Lord Puttnam packed in chairing the GTC after two years, his parting shot was to dismiss the council's prospective budget as a "joke". If it is a joke, then it's a costly one. This year, for example, the GTC cost pound;16 million, of which teachers cover pound;15 million.

My main concern is that this joke is also a well-executed one. The GTC has been handed a remit laced with schizophrenia - the dual identity of the independent voice of teaching conflicting with the role of the profession's regulatory body. How can it genuinely become the voice of teachers?

Firstly, by genuinely arising from the profession. Ruth Kelly recently praised the GTC's "important role as an independent advisory and regulatory body". Ironic, given that this was said on the day she single-handedly appointed 13 of its 64 members.

While the majority of the council are teachers, at just over one-third, the section actually elected by us is still in a minority. Unions keep their grip on the make-up of the council. Apart from the nine union appointees, they have actively promoted candidates in the "independent" teacher elections. The result? The Audit Commission reported that "divided union representation hampers external recognition of the council as an independent organisation that has gravitas".

The Secretary of State and the unions send their minions, a governor is placed by the National Governors Council, and others are sent by the TTA, the CBI and over a dozen other acronyms. A coterie of committees perpetuates itself, leaving teachers electing a minority of their council.

I just wonder if the union-slated and quango-appointed could ever be put before the electorate to ask whether that is the council we want.

Personally, I've read their CVs and many of them would get my vote - given the chance.

With the genuine mandate of the profession, the council could speak with an authoritative voice. And that voice needs to be heard by its electorate.

How can it speak for teachers when it is not yet speaking to them?

The current miscommunication costs pound;2.5 million - that's what the GTC spends on publicity, including its magazine and web page. But it's not getting through. So while the council actually does some great work, such as its promotion of continuing professional development and its excellent "Achieve" network promoting race equality, these remain hidden behind its other self - that regulatory function, tackling the booze and the willies.

Why not provide a day's supply cover for one teacher in every school to catch up on who the GTC are and what they do, effectively creating a briefed link within each school? Cost of this proposal? About pound;2.5 million - the amount currently spent on an unread forest of publicity.

There's one other way of amplifying the voice of any mumbling quango - privatise it. If the GTC really wants to be what it claims - "answerable to registered teachers" - it should set an ambitious target of making its fee a voluntary levy. The gauntlet would then be down - convince the profession you're worth pound;30. Of course, we engage in a charade in which teachers receive a grant to cover the fee, which is then taken off us.

So I propose a gentle gauntlet - anyone who doesn't want to pay the fee also doesn't get the grant. Their grant can then be paid direct to the council. The net effect is purely to end this charade of teachers paying their fees.

We need a voice for our profession. If this council really speaks from us and for us, we'll gladly pay. Now you're talking.

Huw Thomas is headteacher of a Sheffield primary school

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