When Michael Forsyth was deep in his legislative reforms as education minister in early 1989 he received a note from Ivor Sutherland, registrar of the General Teaching Council. "As you will be aware," Mr Sutherland wrote, "the raison d'$#234tre of the General Teaching Council is the protection and, where possible, the enhancement of professional standards in Scottish schools, a responsibility which it has exercised over the years with considerable vigour and no little success."
He argued that the council had no powers once teachers had been through initial training and their probationary period, other than to strike from the register any teacher guilty of gross professional misconduct, the kind of behaviour normally reserved for the court reports in the daily papers. On average only five per year are struck off.
Mr Sutherland advised Mr Forsyth to give the council a statutory role in accrediting in-service courses and staff development and in "the assessment of continuing professional competence". Eight years on, Mr Forsyth has promised to bestow such powers on the council if his administration is returned, having changed his mind about the GTC being the poodle of the Educational Institute of Scotland and other teacher unions. Poodles can bite, too.
Both Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister, and Helen Liddell, Labour's, minister-in-waiting, have been involved in talks with the council about extending its role and it seems certain that a future education Bill under either party will include the necessary legislation.
Such a "breakthrough", as Mary Rose Caden, the council's convener, calls it, is being replicated in other professions. From September the General Medical Council will have new powers under which doctors identified as deficient will be put through a rehabilitation programme. Some may be asked to retrain or work in a supervised capacity.
Ms Caden, a past EIS president, says: "We are talking about penny numbers. As in any profession, there are some people who should not be where they are but for many there is nobody to help them." She accepts the Government's view that employers have not been up to the task, despite recent legislation ending teachers' right to be dismissed only by a two-thirds majority of the relevant local authority education committee.
Ms Caden, principal teacher of guidance at St Augustine's High, Edinburgh,is also anxious about the signals emanating from the parties' manifestos and the emphasis on getting tough with teachers. "Our concern is not 'let's get rid of incompetent teachers' but how much support is being offered to teachers throughout their careers. It is a similar concern to the level of support teachers have in their probationary period. If the right kind of staff development is available, appraisal is not necessary. It is the ongoing development of the teacher that matters. "
She believes professional competences for assessing probationers could be extended and that staff development should take place throughout the 40 years of a teacher's career. What counts is "getting in there early enough". How such ideas would translate into practice is unclear and would require further detailed discussion but the council would have to take on extra staff. It is already considering moving to larger offices.
Any appraisal system the Government insisted on, Ms Caden points out, would bring considerable extra costs - one reason why authorities have tucked it away on the backburner - and more intensive staff training would equally incur substantial costs. "This does not come cheaply."
The education forum of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities last week challenged the Government's decision to extend the council's powers. A paper asked: "Is the Government proposing to introduce a capability procedure and is this procedure to be linked to the appraisal process which is being proposed and will it be a compulsory part of a teacher's contract? Will the GTC be obliged to investigate complaints from parents where they regard a teacher's competence in the classroom to be in question?"
Bob McKay, director of education in Perth and Kinross and one of Cosla's advisers, reaffirmed the opposition of the Association of Directors of Education to an unacceptable encroachment on the rights of employers. "It is removing local democratic accountability from the management of staff and handing it over to a central quango, " he told Cosla. Directors fear that employment law would first have to be clarified. Teachers who feel they have been unfairly dismissed are entitled to go to an industrial tribunal and it would be the authorities that were summonsed, not the council.
Keir Bloomer, director of education in Clackmannan remains equally hostile about proposals to remove incompetent teachers and "kitemark" in-service courses. Mr Bloomer, a past GTC vice-convener, argues: "The existence of GTC disciplinary powers has actually served as a protection for bad teachers. It cuts across the normal employer-employee relationship."
He accepts that few "bad" teachers have been removed by authorities under the current system but maintains that the new unitary councils are more likely to act once they have introduced new disciplinary codes. It is too early to prejudge their success in that, he says.
Giving the GTC muscle to remove bad teachers might make the process more difficult since the standard of proof might be higher, Mr Bloomer says.