This is your profession - so take charge of it

12th October 2012 at 01:00
Teacher union boss Mary Bousted and heads' leader Russell Hobby join forces to call for teachers to take ownership of their practice

Teachers must reclaim their own professionalism; they must own their practice and be confident in its defence. At present, decades of denigration by politicians and sections of the media have left the profession demoralised and defensive.

While it is easy, in hindsight, to see how we have got here, it is harder to envisage how we move on to somewhere better: a place where teachers individually and collectively have the confidence and the power to ward off misguided and misinformed meddling by powerful, partisan interests.

In particular, we need to be loud enough and strong enough to crowd out the most insistent and strident voices of politicians. This means some tough decisions, including taking ownership of standards, aspiring to excellence and a readiness to challenge our own practice when evidence shows us things can be done better. But, while willing to learn, a truly confident profession is also able to say "no" when it is not convinced.

The idea of professionalism is central to the quest for greater autonomy and respect. But if, in calling for professionalism, we really mean "Leave us alone; we know best", then it is badly misused. If we mean using expert judgement to link evidence to the unique needs of each child, that is powerful and challenging.

Professionalism does not mean isolation. It does not mean the end of politics in education. It deals with our future as a nation. It belongs to us all. Teachers will earn a privileged position in the debate by being right more often than other people. We may therefore need to invent a definition of professionalism: not distant and authoritative, but open and engaged. As transparency and choice grow, it is not enough to have a vision of education; we have to sell it. It is not enough to tell parents what's good for their children; we have to listen. There is every reason to believe that teachers can succeed in this. They are, despite the brickbats, trusted and respected. They could be the most influential people in the country. Yet self-interest or defeatism will erode that trust.

None of this will be easy, particularly now, with a highly ideological political elite pursuing profoundly idiosyncratic ends. Nothing betrayed the secretary of state's real belief about the teaching profession more than his announcement that academies and free schools would no longer be required to appoint qualified teachers. Imagine the public reaction if a health secretary made a parallel announcement: surgeons no longer need to be qualified; they can operate if they show aptitude and the right attitude. The coalition government is licensing the disrespect of teachers. If politicians will not take care of the profession, we will have to do it for ourselves.

What teachers can do for themselves

Teachers need to be well paid for the demanding and immensely skilled work they do. If politicians are serious about recruiting the brightest and the best, and keeping them in the profession, they must invest in the whole teaching workforce.

One emerging idea is of a Royal College of Teaching, a fully independent body that would create and police standards and practice, free of the absurd political interference under which the profession currently labours. This would be an interesting development: not a recreation of the General Teaching Council for England, but a body developed from the ground up, owned by teachers and respected for its independent stance.

Professionalism and management have an uneasy relationship. Management is by definition an infringement of autonomy. Clearly some boundaries are necessary, and smart management creates more opportunities for judgement, backs teachers' judgements and helps increase teachers' ability to exercise judgement. Managers can and do go over the top. Their job should be to absorb the pressure and translate it into something useful, not to pass it on to the people who work for them.

Professionalism does not mean you set your own standards, however. It means you decide how standards are met. Let's get it out on the table so we can move on: not every teacher is a good teacher. The number of poor teachers is small, but we do the profession no favours to deny they exist. After pupils, the people who suffer most from poor teaching are teachers. Success is the best form of protection and the surest guarantee of autonomy. By the same token, though, if the first thing you hear of concerns over your performance is a conversation about your departure, your manager has failed, not you.

The debate over lesson observation sums up the misuse of professionalism. Once again, it can be done badly, but that is an argument for good observation, not no observation. Confident professionals have no fear of criticism: if it is wrong, they ignore it; if it is right, they use it for the benefit of the children.

We don't ask what the government can do for the profession: competitive pay and an end to the petty disparagement will do for a start. We ask more what teachers can do for themselves.

Here, then, is our four-point plan for the profession's future.

- A commitment to participation in large-scale, controlled research, combined with a willingness to base practice on evidence and to change when the evidence demands it.

- A readiness to manage our own performance and raise standards through training.

- A new level of engagement with parents and families to build an education system together.

- A Royal College of Teaching, created and run by teachers.

With these proposals adopted, we would hope to see the development of a dynamic, confident, trusted profession with the admiration of the whole of society.

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL and Russell Hobby is general secretary of the NAHT heads' union.

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