Speaking at the Commons education select committee recently, schools minister Nick Gibb made an important observation about the new College of Teaching, one that touches upon a key debate around its formulation.
“It’s important that it is a profession-led organisation and not a government-led organisation,” he said. “We had problems with the GTCE previously. The reason that didn’t succeed in the end was it was simply a part of the government machinery. All the other professions had these Royal Colleges established centuries ago and that’s what makes them successful: they’ve come from within the profession. That’s what I hope will happen with the College of Teaching.”
There has been much debate about how the new College of Teaching compares with the old General Teaching Council for England (GTCE), which ran from 2000-2012. Some say the College of Teaching is a mirror image of the GTCE, yet by exploring how the GTCE was founded and then operated we can see some very clear and distinct differences.
The three main differences in my mind are:
The formation of the GTCE was announced with great fanfare after the Labour landslide in 1997. Stephen Byers, then minister for schools standards, said: “We intend to set up a General Teaching Council by the year 2000."
And it was with this dry-sounding statement that the problems started… In his excitement to support the teaching profession, Mr Byers forgot one thing – it wasn’t his profession.
So instead of creating a professional body that could empower, engage and develop teachers, we were once again being "done to". The politicians had completely missed the point. From the outset the GTCE was doomed to fail – it was set up in the style of a quango: a political puppet pretending to portray the interests of teachers. It was even recommended that the secretary of state should appoint the first tranche of senior leaders.
The new College of Teaching has learnt from this and recognises the importance of political independence. This has to be an unconditional requirement that exists if the College is to be successful. Put simply: teachers won’t endure another politically-led professional body.
Some think that it was Michael Gove’s idea as he talked about it in his speech to the National College for Teaching and Leadership in 2013, but the idea had been widely discussed before that, not least in the education select committee in 2012. However, the actions which have led to the setting up of the College so far had their beginnings one evening in the bar at a heads' residential run by the Prince's Teaching Institute (PTI) in January 2012.
The vision for the College is that it will be, in time, an autonomous membership organisation, similar to the likes of Royal College of Surgeons – focused on developing professionalism and the quality of practice, not on policies and politics – ultimately it wants to support teachers in the drive for education to become a self-improving profession. It will ensure it remains politically independent through a new Royal Charter.
The College will promote teaching as a teacher-led, independent profession that envisions its own destiny. That’s why, on top of philanthropic grants and continuing negotiations with the government for "no-strings funding", Claim Your College is seeking to raise funds through a crowdfunding campaign.
Teachers’ support for this financial independence is so important, particularly when looking back to the formation of the GTCE and the ludicrous events that passed in order to enforce compulsory payment for membership.
2. Key roles/purpose
When the GTCE opened its doors, it had four key roles:
- To hold a register for every teacher working in any state school within England (including agencies and supply staff).
- To set and maintain standards for all teachers.
- To provide policy advice for government and other agencies.
- To create and monitor teacher professional behaviour via Code of Conduct and, where necessary, intervene and discipline teachers.
These may seem like admirable aims, yet unpicking them in context of the educational arena at the time uncovers difficulties. Holding a register seemed a sensible approach, yet there was a backlash from teachers, who considered the compulsory membership an affront to their professionalism.
The GTCE appeared to be sidelining the Teacher Training Agency (TTA), which had been overseeing the standards of teachers coming into the profession since 1994. As a result of its quango-esque appearance, any GTCE advice to government was viewed by many as if it were just another DfE department advising Whitehall – pointless and removed from frontline classrooms.
Finally, the Code of Conduct resulted in endless stories of ill-judged disciplinary hearings and became a heavy chain around the GTCE neck's. With the announcement of GTCE’s demise in June 2010, even the CEO at the time (Keith Bartley) questioned whether it is possible to reconcile advocacy for the profession with a disciplinary function.
So here’s the rub: the proposed voluntary College of Teaching would be non-regulatory. The College of Teaching does not intend to regulate the profession as a whole in any way shape or form. It will not be "checking up" on teachers; nor would it seek to investigate alleged cases of misconduct or incompetence like the GTCE.
Its aims are far more progressive and aspirational: offering "recognition of quality" through membership, plus access to research, signposting for accredited professional development and mentoring.
What’s not to like about that?
While membership of the College is a live debate, and one that the recently appointed founding trustees are currently reviewing in consultation with the profession through the Big Staff Meeting, important lessons have been taken from the demise of the GTCE.
It is anticipated that membership would not just cover teachers in maintained schools and academies but also independent, special and free schools.
Could membership be expanded to early years, higher education and FE sectors? I hope so, perhaps through differentiated membership, and these discussions are being taken forward by the new founding trustees. The College’s aspirations are inclusivity and choice not regulation and obligation.
The voluntary nature of the College is vital and will be the driving force to success. As a new independent professional body, the College has to create something that teachers aspire to and something heads and leaders desire for their staff – without these elements there will be no College of Teaching.
For me, there is no doubt that these three key areas differentiate the College of Teaching from the GTCE and in attempting to identify them I have highlighted some aspects of the GTCE that, looking back, seem patronising to our profession and fly in the face of its initial aims. And that accelerated its downfall.
While it is easy to be critical of the GTCE, it is also important to recognise that elements of it added real value to the profession: the Teacher Learning Academy attempted to drive a grass-roots collaborative approach to teacher development. The research department could well have been ahead of the game with ambitions of trying to develop a research-informed practice through useful and easy-to-access booklets.
The GTCE worked hard to try to convince teachers of its worth, but in the end failed in its quest. The College of Teaching is different and will not make the same mistakes.
Gareth Alcott is a primary and secondary (maths) teacher and assistant headteacher at Kings Alfred’s Academy in Wantage. He is director of CPD at Oxfordshire Teaching Schools Alliance (OTSA) and is a supporter of the Claim Your College coalition
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