We're not here to pry into teachers' private lives

14th August 2009 at 01:00

When the General Teaching Council for Wales was established nine years ago, it was received with much enthusiasm by education bodies in Wales, including the teacher unions. So recent statements by some unions, and calls for top-level discussions about the "future" of the council, merit a considered response.

Most of this recent criticism appears to result from some unions not agreeing with the way the council operates its disciplinary procedures. Which brings into focus the question: why do these hearings take place and what exactly is the role of the GTCW as an independent professional body?

Our role is far more significant than what, at face value, amounts to the disciplining of a very small minority (0.05 per cent) of teachers who fall short of the high standards expected. Our role is to act independently in the public interest to help improve standards of teaching and learning in Wales.

In a case of alleged professional misconduct or incompetence by a registered teacher, the council has a professional responsibility, as well as a legal duty, to investigate and, if necessary, to hear the case.

Most teachers who come before our panels are represented by unions. Our panels' role is to consider the case from the perspective of the public interest. But - and this is a crucial point - that interest is also the interest of the teaching profession.

It is a point often overlooked that it can only be a positive when disciplinary panels composed of teachers spell out the high standards of behaviour and practice they expect of their peers. If teaching has been entrusted to be self-regulating, then we must make sure we live up to that responsibility.

We therefore have a very different function from the unions in these circumstances, and, because of this, it is our prime responsibility and legal duty to ensure that our disciplinary rules and procedures protect pupils, parents and the public. Most teachers would expect nothing less.

We are always happy to listen to suggestions and ideas to improve our processes, and in fact are currently arranging an extra meeting for union caseworkers on this - but we must never move away from our core aim of acting in the public interest.

The council has been accused of "prying" into the private lives of teachers through the hearing process. Our role is most certainly not that. In the case of a criminal offence committed by a teacher, the police are required by law to refer the case to us. We then consider whether the offence has any professional relevance. If it has, we take it further.

I doubt that many members of the public would disagree that teachers' conduct outside the classroom should be taken into account when considering a person's suitability to teach. Teachers have always been, and continue to be, role models for pupils, and their behaviour outside as well as inside the school needs to reflect this.

What is often left unacknowledged is that the council undertakes extensive work outside its disciplinary role to help raise professional standards in teaching. This includes providing independent advice to the government on behalf of the teaching profession - for example, on school inspection, on the development of a more structured professional development route for teachers in the form of a chartered teacher qualification, or on the monitoring of teacher supply and demand; and by the allocation of Assembly government funding for teachers' professional development.

With this in mind, it would surely be a backward step to return to a pre-GTCW Wales where teacher hearings took place behind closed doors with civil servants who had little understanding of professional issues, where funding for individual teachers' professional development did not exist, and where no single independent voice was in place to speak with authority on behalf of the teaching profession as a whole.

As opposed to having a limited view of the role of the council, unions should begin to work with the GTCW to see how we can take the profession forward by furthering our responsibilities.

For example, wouldn't it be beneficial if teacher training courses were accredited by the profession, rather than by outside bodies? Teacher training courses in Scotland (and soon Ireland) are accredited by the relevant teaching council. This is also the case for other professions in the UK - for example, nursing courses, which are accredited by the Nursing and Midwifery Council.

Ultimately, making this type of progress is reliant on how government, society and stakeholders, including unions, view the teaching profession and the level of trust that they are prepared to place in teachers.

The council has great confidence that the teaching profession in Wales wants to remain and become even more self-regulating. This way, teachers can assure parents that when they send their most valuable possessions to school, they can be confident that they are placing their children in the hands of professionals who are competent in their practice and who are role models in their conduct.

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