The Scottish Executive is currently consulting on "the need for a professional body for staff in Scotland's colleges". The consultation paper is certainly important and timely. The further education sector, so long considered to be the Cinderella of the educational service, has transformed itself and is now widely acknowledged, in the words of the consultation paper, as playing "a key role in the creation of an inclusive and economically vibrant society".
The continued flourishing of the sector is rightly seen to depend pre-eminently on the expertise and commitment of staff and their continuing professional development. The point of the consultation exercise is to test the level of support for a professional body "which would help to support the career development of college staff and raise the standards of learning and teaching throughout the sector".
It is surely to be hoped that the various stakeholders, including staff themselves, will respond positively to the proposal for a professional body. Indeed, the case for such a body is overwhelming. Professional bodies already exist for teachers in schools and for a host of other occupational groups that claim to provide a valuable public service, politicians and civil servants being conspicuous exceptions.
The existence of such professional bodies confers on practitioners an entitlement to influence, if not determine, standards of admission, the nature of initial professional education and of continuing professional development, and what should count as professionally acceptable standards of professional practice and conduct. Furthermore, professional bodies constitute the voice of their respective professions, enhancing their standing.
There are two implications. First, the establishment of a professional body for FE staff should finally remove the ambiguity that surrounds the initial professional training of such staff. For too long, staff in FE have been appointed mainly on the strength of their vocational expertise and experience and have not been obliged, like colleagues in schools, to undertake a period of professional training.
The consultation discloses that at least 57 per cent of all lecturing staff have a full FE teaching qualification or equivalent. That is not an impressive figure and it must be presumed that the advent of a professional body will lead to a rapid and progressive increase in the proportion of staff in colleges who receive a proper professional education.
Second, a profession must have the authority to require practitioners to be fully registered with it. The consultation paper posits three models for a professional body: one where membership is voluntary, one where it is mandatory and a curious hybrid in which the voluntary principle would apply but under certain constraints. It is to be hoped that this feature of the paper is a genuine attempt to gauge professional opinion and not careful preparation for a fudge.
The fact that, currently, registration with the General Teaching Council for Scotland is voluntary for FE staff proves nothing. The remedy, surely, in accordance with practice in other professional contexts, is to make the right to practise conditional on registration with the professional body.
What credibility would a professional body attract that spent time and effort establishing standards of professional practice but was in no position to insist on compliance with those standards?
If the case for a professional body is clear, the nature of that professional body is likely to prove more problematic. There are at least three possibilities.
The first would entail a separate body for the FE sector. That has attractions, not the least of which is that it would reinforce the integrity of a sector that is judged to make a distinctive contribution to the education service.
However, FE is not as distinctive as is often thought. At one end of the spectrum it overlaps strongly with the work of schools, and it is the stated policy of the Executive that even stronger links should be forged between colleges and schools as a way of enriching the vocational education of those between the ages of 14 and 16. At the other end of the spectrum, FE has significant overlaps with higher education. Indeed, we are told that more than a quarter of all higher education in Scotland takes place in further education colleges.
Given these extensive overlaps with schools and with higher education, would it make sense to have a professional body for FE alone? There would be considerable awkwardness in a dual arrangement in which those working with 14-18s in schools would be professionally regulated by the GTC while those in FE, working with the same age group, would operate under the aegis of the FE professional body. Similarly, those offering higher education in universities would be regulated by the new Higher Education Academy, while those engaged in higher education programmes in FE would be the responsibility of the new FE body.
A second model might reduce some of the duplication involved and would see the establishment of a separate professional body for those involved in post-compulsory education. Such a development would certainly strengthen the FE-HE linkage, but would be problematic for teachers in schools who work with upper secondary pupils, unless it was also proposed that such teachers should turn to the post-compulsory body for professional recognition, thus undermining the GTC's efforts over the years to unify the teaching profession in Scotland.
Yet a third option is to extend the scope of the GTC to make it the professional body for FE staff. The GTC is a well established body with considerable expertise and experience and it is already heavily involved in further education. Why, it might be asked, go to the bother and expense of establishing a separate professional body when there is already in existence one that has shown itself well able to deliver what is required?
There is some evidence in the consultation paper that there would be support for such an extension of the GTC's powers and scope. And there are many attractions in seeking to create a single integrated teaching profession in Scotland.
One could go further. Higher education institutions are currently engaged in establishing the Higher Education Academy, which will discharge several functions relating to the professional accreditation of teaching staff.
That body originated in a report from the Department for Education and Science in England and is being developed in Scotland without sufficient public discussion about its relationship to the GTC.
Is it altogether too fanciful to envisage all of those involved in the promotion of learning, from nursery school to university, deriving their professional authority and accreditation from a single body? That question may perhaps be regarded as beyond the scope of the present consultation paper. However, it is the kind of strategic issue that those responsible for the national governance of education should be considering. Are they?
Professor Gordon Kirk was formerly dean of the education faculty at Edinburgh University.