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Voice of the rank and file

The elected members of the General Teaching Council include an ex-naval commander. Alison Brace talked to him.

WHEN Lord Puttnam convenes the first meeting of the General Teaching Council later this year, he should be aware that he has a naval commander in his team.

For that is the rank secondary-school teacher David Belfield reached in the Royal Naval Reserves before retiring in 1997 after 28 years' part-time service.

"My last appointment was as Commanding Officer of HMS King Alfred reserve training centre in Portsmouth," he says. ("Quite unassuming but gets things done" was his Admiral's verdict.)

Clearly someone Lord Puttnam, as chairman of the GTC, and fellow members should not mess with. However, Belfield has no intention of pulling rank when it comes to his new posting as one of the 25 elected teacher members of the new council. Instead, he hopes to reflect the views of the ordinary teacher.

"I hope that what I can offer is the voice of an experienced teacher. I still teach in the classroom and have been doing so for 33 years," says Belfield. Aged 53, he has for the past 25 years taught design and technology at Cowplain community school in Waterlooville, Hampshire, and is now head of department.

"I was elected by secondary teachers and I feel that my first job is to reflect their views. They are my constituency."

He believes one of the key tasks of the GTC is to improve the overall image of the teaching profession. The creation of the council, coupled with its compulsory registration system for all teachers, is the first step in that process. "We must be seen as an organisation which sticks up for teachers."

He is also concerned about the number of primary teachers who burn out before reaching retirement age. "They really have taken the brunt of changes over the past 10 years," he says. The GTC needs to address this problem, he says, as well as the tricky issue of recruitment and retention of secondary teachers.

Belfield is a former pupil of Dover grammar school for boys but he decided early on that he did not want to teach in a grammar school.

"There was a saying at college at the time that if you can't teach, go to a grammar school because basically there you could get through on subject knowledge. A secondary modern was seen as a far greater challenge," he says.

"I basically failed the 11-plus first time, or at least I was a borderline case. I only scraped in on interview.But I might not have hd that second chance and would have gone to a secondary modern, which could have changed my life."

His first job after leaving Shoreditch College in Egham, Surrey - now part of Brunel University - was at a secondary modern in Bromley, followed by Norbury Manor boys' school in Croydon.

But the greatest challenge of his career came with his next job at Stepney Green boys' comprehensive in Tower Hamlets, east London. "It was a difficult school - not impossible - but it really did stretch you to the limit.

"Those three years at Stepney Green put the finishing touches to me being a well-rounded teacher," he says. "After going through that, I felt there was not going to be a great deal that would surprise me any more. I would recommend that kind of experience to any new teacher at the start of their career."

Belfield and his wife, Barbara, have two children - Andrew, 20, who is in his final term of a degree in leisure management at Farnborough College of Technology - and Claire,17, who has expressed interest in becoming a teacher. She takes her A-levels this summer and hopes to take up a place to study geography at Plymouth University. "I've told her that she can be a teacher for 40 years, so I believe it's best to get a degree, have some experience doing something else first, and then become a teacher before you are 30.

"I do think that teachers tend to be a little bit insular. A lot of them are not aware of what is happening in the general education world outside their school or even their own classroom."

For the past five years, Belfield has been Hampshire branch secretary for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. He also is a co-opted member of Hampshire's education commitee and represents the county and the Isle of Wight on the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' national executive committee.

"I feel that the teacher members of the GTC have got to have an interest in and a good knowledge of current education issues, and the ordinary teacher in a school does not always have that. I feel I have gained that knowledge through my involvement in the ATL."

The GTC may not be perfect - or on a par with the General Medical Council or the Bar Council because of the number of Department for Education and Employment appointees - but it is a start, he says.

"The teaching profession has been asking for a GTC for the past 10 years or so, and now we have got it. I feel quite honoured that I am in at the start."

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