We’re making ‘fitness to teach’ fit for the future

2nd December 2016 at 00:00
Running forwards: the GTCS' process is about public protection and future risk – not punishing past mistakes
By changing the way that misconduct cases are handled, the General Teaching Council for Scotland hopes to make the system more supportive and transparent

The General Teaching Council for Scotland is consulting on changes to our fitness-to-teach process. We think that what we are proposing will help us to deliver a more efficient and, importantly, supportive system, replacing one that has been working well but can be improved still.

How can the GTCS’ process be supportive? We think that fitness to teach is an outcome, not the individual parts of this process, however important they might be.

So what is the outcome that we are trying to achieve? A profession that is and remains fit to teach, impacting positively on the learning of our children and young people. Being fit to teach means meeting the standards of professional competence and conduct that the GTCS expects. Our professional standards and code of professionalism and conduct set out these expectations at length, but we could sum it up by saying that it means having the right knowledge and skills (and applying them), and doing the right thing as a professional teacher.

Our role in ensuring fitness to teach, when cases are referred to us, is about public protection and addressing any future risk – it’s not about discipline, punishment and looking back. We approach assessing fitness to teach holistically, in the here and now.

This involves looking at the shortfalls in conduct or professional competence that are identified alongside what steps the teacher has taken to openly and honestly reflect on the issues, learn from them and make changes to ensure they will not happen again.

While there are times when the shortfalls identified are so fundamental that there is simply no scope for remediation in this way, our approach recognises that everybody makes mistakes at times.

Teachers’ good reputation

Our process is about providing assurance that those same mistakes will not be repeated so that the public (and especially pupils) are not harmed and the reputation of the teaching profession remains intact. This last point is not always well understood by teachers, but an important aspect of the GTCS’ role is to protect and enhance the reputation of the Scottish teaching profession.

The changes that we are proposing to our process (see the consultation on our website) are about placing the emphasis on the holistic, forward-looking assessment approach that has been described above. They are also about clarifying the fact that GTCS involvement is required only when there is a continuing risk of harm of some kind.

Our hope is that reframing fitness to teach will promote a different kind of engagement

Our hope is that reframing fitness to teach in this way will promote a different kind of engagement in our process, encouraging teachers to approach it from a place of openness, honesty, learning and reflection. Alongside these proposed changes, and influencing this cultural shift, we plan to develop clearer guidance for teacher employers on when and how referrals should be made to us, as well as better information for the public. We believe that all this will help to build greater transparency and trust in what we are doing and encourage referrals to be made to us when this is the right thing to do.

We know, however, that changing how we deal with fitness-to-teach cases in a reactive sense is only one part of how we will achieve the outcome we seek. Why? Because in these cases harm has already happened, and we need to place more emphasis on preventing harm from happening in the first place.

Learning from experience

We therefore plan to increase our work in promoting the lessons that might be learned from the fitness-to-teach cases we see. The risks associated with drinking alcohol on school trips and at school proms are just one example of a theme from recent cases that provides scope to reflect on and learn from; there are many others. As an integral part of the consultation, we will also be reviewing our Code of Professionalism and Conduct and looking at what tools and guidance we can provide to better support the profession in exercising good judgement.

So why move to a more proactive, outcome-focused and supportive model that looks at fitness to teach in this wider sense? Like other professional regulators, we have identified a number of unintended consequences of our current process that stand in the way of it properly achieving what it is supposed to. Challenging questions have been asked, such as: “Does the process encourage referrals to be made to us when this is the right thing to do or does it act as a deterrent?”; and “Does the process promote honest conversations, learning and the building (or restoration) of professionalism, or act as a barrier to this?”

We have approached this consultation openly, driven by the imperative that we must learn from past experience and improve the impact that we have. Continuing to work in this open, honest and reflective way, together with our partners and the public, is how we will achieve effective regulation of teachers that is more outcome-focused, less bureaucratic and more supportive for all those involved. It’s time to dispel any lingering notion of a big stick, and view fitness to teach in a different way.

Jennifer Macdonald is head of legal and adjudication services at the General Teaching Council for Scotland

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