What next for policing the profession?

Richard Willis

Last year, I travelled with Lord Puttnam, the film producer and first chairman of the General Teaching Council for England (GTC), on a plane bound from Palma de Mallorca in Spain to London Gatwick. En route, Puttnam suggested to me that there was an additional important chapter to add to the book The Struggle for the General Teaching Council (Routledge) that I wrote in 2005. He was referring to the upheaval in the teaching profession caused by the government's abandonment of the GTC.

David Cameron became committed to the idea of the English council's demise in the run-up to the last general election, claiming that the GTC's budget of #163;23 million was wasteful and an unnecessary expense. Cameron was motivated mainly because he was sickened by the lack of teachers the GTC had sacked for incompetence - only 15 since 2000 - and partly as he was against the financial ineffectiveness of quangos in general.

Cameron wanted better value for money and his idea of elimination sat well with the ethos of the government's austerity measures. He was supported by Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools, who controversially claimed that there were as many as 15,000 incompetent teachers.

Last week, the GTC was scrapped, the third of such councils for the teaching profession to be disposed of by government; the other two, set up in 1902 and 1912, were jettisoned in 1906 and 1949 respectively.

It was on 2 June 2010 that Michael Gove, soon after his appointment as education secretary, announced the coalition government's decision to axe the GTC for English teachers. There was a general consensus that it had outworn its use.

Puttnam concedes that the council was set up against a background of badly worded legislation, that the first budget was very much "a joke" and that, constrained by the widespread dominance of English teacher unions, primarily the NUT, the GTC faced major problems at the outset.

This has been the central theme of my research on the GTC. In 2000, the year in which the council was introduced by Labour, I aired my suspicions about its credibility both in TES ("Models of good form?", 14 July) and in History Today ("Teachers Rule, OK", September).

Black-and-white approach

So what lies in wait for teacher professionalism in the wake of the council's abolition? A policy adviser close to Gove re-emphasises the government's stance, which is very much on placing the task of monitoring teachers back with the civil servants in Whitehall.

Headteachers will also take on a wider role. First reactions to this recommendation are that schools, even if heavily steered by the government, would face difficulties in trying to deal with underperformance.

The Conservatives are aware that the majority of teachers never had confidence in the GTC to deliver. Teachers never really wanted, whether directly or indirectly, to pay any fee, and I always doubted its true worth apart from the purpose of sacking teachers for gross misconduct.

Yet it is clear that the ordinary classroom teacher is not to blame. The GTC could have set out firing on all cylinders in a mission to bring back discipline in schools. While such an ideal might have been hard to realise, the council was guilty of not finding a clearer identity with tangible success in order to guarantee its continuation in England's educational system.

Gove is planning to continue with the national regulation of cases of misconduct - a role that, since 2000, has been carried out by the GTC - but through a new Teaching Agency, which will police the profession on behalf of the secretary of state as well as being in charge of recruitment and training. Despite there being no register, there will be a list of teachers prohibited from teaching and those who have already had sanctions imposed by the GTC will be officially listed too.

The disciplinary process for teachers will be made simpler by leaving behind the array of sanctions now possible, and when called before the Teaching Agency for misconduct, the teacher will either be prohibited to teach or not.

This black-and-white approach, in which only the most serious cases are dealt with, has already led to dissension. Advocates who argue for a status-led profession will not be satisfied. On the other hand, Conservatives and most teachers, while not outwardly supporting each other, have held the same view that the GTC has failed to capture the minds and hearts of the teaching profession.

Dr Richard Willis is an author and historian, and former adviser on the GTC to the Conservative Party.

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