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Throwing good money after bad?

Is the General Teaching Council providing value for money? Unions and the GTC battle for teachers' hearts and minds

FOR decades, doctors, lawyers, accountants, architects and Scottish teachers have seen their professionalism recognised through self-regulation. English teachers have been denied that right until now, with the General Teaching Council for England taking over the regulatory process from Department for Education and Skills officials.

Apart from allegations involving child protection, cases of teacher dismissals because of alleged misconduct or incompetence will be heard by council members. Most members will be practising teachers, ensuring that cases are heard by those who properly understand the day-to-day work of teachers, but also have an interest in protecting the status of their own profession.

Teachers' unions have demanded self-regulation and are pleased it is now in place. Yet the two largest unions have still to call upon their members to pay the fee. While the National Union of Teachers argues that teachers should not be required to pay, the National Association of School-masters Union of Women Teachers is concerned that the council's advisory role means that it strays into union territory.

As a member of both unions, I understand concerns about territory. Yet the council has a legal responsibility to advise the Government. If the advice is to be fair and reasonable, it must take into account teachers' working lives. One cannot, for example, promote a policy on continuing professional development without stating that teachers must have enough time for development opportunities to exist rather than their becoming another burden.

In many areas, the work of the unions and the council go hand in hand. The GTC database of teachers and research it has commissioned will, for the first time, show the true extent of teacher shortages and reasons for leaving the profession, thereby strengthening the unions' case for improved pay and conditions.

Great play is made about this being a "teaching" and not a "teachers'" council. About two-thirds of council members are practising teachers; the other third is made up of others with an interest in education, such as employers, churches and parents.

This is a real strength of the council, as it makes advice given to the Government pertinent and credible. And the benefits of this advice can be enormous. Already, in response to our policies, the Government has proposed six-week paid sabbaticals for many experienced teachers, with other suggestions being considered.

The professional code drafted by council members has highlighted the role of teachers in society, and the council chairman, David Puttnam, has contributed greatly to a more positive public understanding of the profession. As a teacher, I was initially dubious about the GTC being chaired by a lay member. I was mistaken. For the public to have confidence in the council in its start-up phase, he was the right choice, and he has argued tirelessly and passionately for teachers and their work.

Teachers have a great deal to gain from the council's advice to the Government, but criticism of government policy requires financial independence. It is vital and fair that teachers equally contribute to the enhancement of their professional status.

A sense of belonging to a unifying professional body brings teachers into line with others whose professionalism is much better recognised than our own.

Ultimately, if the pressures on teachers are to be eased through improved recruitment and retention of staff, we as a profession must see ourselves, and encourage others to see us, in the positive light that we deserve. A change in atmosphere, through the work of the council, is only just beginning and pound;23.00 represents a leap of faith that really is worth taking.

Anthony Handley is an elected member of the General Teaching Council for England and teaches in a Croydon comprehensive school

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