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‘Would licensing teachers erode the tradition of education based on academic knowledge?’

Alka Sehgal-Cuthbert, teacher and educational researcher at the University of Cambridge, writes:

"Labour education spokesman Tristram Hunt claims that his recent proposal to introduce some form of regular licensing for teachers addresses two problems in education. First, he says it will ensure greater accountability and trust among the public; secondly, he claims that it will raise the status of the teaching profession to the level of medicine and law. In this respect, he agrees with Conservative MP Charlotte Leslie, who supports the establishment of a Royal College of Teaching along the lines of the General Medical Council. This is ironic, since, following the Francis Report, the government has proposed Ofsted-type inspections of GPs and hospitals. Importing education-style audits does little to confirm the supposedly high status of the medical profession.

Opposition from the unions to Dr Hunt’s proposals has been muted. The unions’ main point of contention is that teachers are already subject to so much inspection and monitoring from Ofsted and school managerial structures intent on improving performance that licensing would be just another onerous, demotivating burden. There is a lot of truth in this, but it overlooks an important difference between the teaching profession on the one hand and law and medicine on the other. It is this distinction that makes licensing fundamentally flawed – it is more than a matter of already heavy workloads.

Although medicine, law and education are often thought of as comprising the liberal or humane professions, education is crucially different in that it is not dealing with people as physiological psychological beings (medicine), nor is it concerned with applying codified legal rules and procedures rules to particular situations in order to reach a circumscribed outcome – guilt or innocence.  The development of humanist education over centuries has centred upon the transmission of public culture embodied in subject disciplines through which members of the younger generation, collectively, develop intellectually so that they can play the part they choose in contributing to adult society. Thus, there is a necessary component of open-endedness and uncertainty in education that would be highly problematic in other professions.

To fulfil this time-honoured public service, teachers need two things: high levels of subject and general knowledge. As educational philosopher RS Peters wrote, teachers should be an authority in their subject. They also need to be able to make this intellectual authority manifest in their practice by exerting authority in class. It is on this basis that in the past the teaching profession has legitimately claimed, and largely won, a higher level of public trust.

As yet, the basis for granting teaching licenses is not clear. There have been vague mentions of the need for teachers to keep up to date with "best practice". This is likely to mean that Dr Hunt’s proposal, along with most teacher-training courses, will be largely orientated towards meeting the government’s Teaching Standards, introduced in 2012. This document locates public trust as arising from a range of personal and professional traits and dispositions, including overused phrases such as “treating pupils with dignity” and “not undermining fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law”.

But democracy and the rule of law are not personal values; they are public, political and legal phenomena about which individuals can have a very wide range of differing opinions and evaluations. And to make personal values and dispositions the basis for qualification, licensing or professional progression introduces a highly destabilising, potentially corrosive dynamic into education. 

Particular personality traits and dispositions are not a proper basis for claiming authority and trust in education or improving educational standards. Being an authoritative figure of intellectual authority, on the other hand, has a proven track record. Educational initiatives would be better if they tried to maximise both the place and value of subject knowledge, and a relatively autonomous sphere of practice; rather than seeking replicable formulae.

Behind the politicking of Dr Hunt’s proposals for licensing, along with education secretary Michael Gove’s managerialist interventions and countless research studies on how to improve school effectiveness, lies a problematic quest for predictability and generalisation in teaching.  Tempting as it may sound with its ring of alleged scientific certainty, it is profoundly misplaced; there can be no "best practice" in teaching without endangering the personal, affective pedagogic relationship with subject knowledge as the core guiding principle. 

The necessary, human element of unpredictability is predominantly seen as a problem: surely this just allows poor teachers to "get away with it"? Get away with what exactly? Having to face classes of recalcitrant teenagers day-in-day-out seems like punishment enough. It also ignores the possibility that a certain level and type of unpredictability may be a good thing in education. The consistently poor teacher could be inspired to improve, especially if offered the chance to refresh and extend his/her intellectual interest in knowledge, rather than being offered various forms of support to change his/her personality. At most, poor teachers affect some pupils in a limited way for a limited period. But the erosion of an educational tradition based on academic knowledge is much more serious: it deprives a whole generation of the chance to enter the realm of public culture.


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