Friday 9 May 2014

A voice still to be heard

I've written about the proposed College of Teaching for my latest Sutton Trust blog post.

An effective independent voice for the teaching profession is a dream that sometimes seems more elusive the closer it is to being realised. And if the experience of the General Teaching Council (GTC) for England is not to be repeated, supporters of the new College for Teaching need to take seriously the findings of our new poll today.

Advocates for what was originally called a Royal College of Teaching – but now seems to have lost the royal title if not the patronage of the Prince of Wales’ teaching institute – made their case in a carefully argued blueprint earlier this year:

In many other walks of life, professionals choose to belong to a Royal College or similar professional body which serves several critical functions: it sets standards of performance for the profession – the expectations that professionals have of one another; it translates these standards into training requirements for those entering the profession, and on-going professional development expectations for those who are qualified; it ensures that professional practice is grounded in the best up-to-date evidence; and it connects together leading researchers and practitioners so that each informs the other. In consequence, a professional body plays a crucial part in generating continuous improvement across the profession. We believe that a new College of Teaching would serve a similar function for the teaching profession.

Of course, they have a case. But independence and influence require two things to be effective:  influence requires the support of the vast majority of the profession; independence requires members rather than government to pay the bills.

Today’s National Foundation for Educational Research poll suggests the College has work to do in both respects.  As many teachers of the 1163 teachers questioned don’t know whether they support a Royal College as are in favour. 41 per cent of teachers support the College proposal, while 17 per cent are opposed and 41 per cent haven’t made up their minds yet. Support is higher among secondary teachers – at 45 per cent - than among primary teachers, where 37 per cent are in favour. It is also higher among school leaders.

When those who express support for the college concept were asked how much they would be prepared annually for membership, 26 per cent said they wouldn’t be prepared to pay for it and most of the rest were unwilling to pay more than £30 a year to be a member.

Given the fate of the GTC in England, which was finally abolished unloved in 2012, these are troubling numbers. Not only is there a lack of awareness and enthusiasm for the idea among teachers, there is an unwillingness to pay a modest price for membership among the majority of supporters.

The GTC foundered initially on a bitter dispute about the cost of affiliation – which, to be fair, was compulsory – and this led in the end to the Government paying all but a fraction of the annual affiliation fee.  As Estelle Morris, the schools minister who delivered the GTC that was a longstanding demand of many in the teaching profession, including the unions, has put it in the Guardian:

In retrospect, we seemed to define professional self-regulation as dealing with professional misconduct. So while this was devolved to the GTC, the responsibility to set professional standards, influence training and qualifications and build a framework for professional development were all retained by the government. Together with the unhelpful approach of some teaching unions, which treated its creation as a turf war, it wasn't perhaps surprising that the GTC didn't win the hearts and minds of the profession.

Her argument is that a new College should be responsible for teaching quality – which it should champion and is the subject of the Trust’s new partnership with the Gates Foundation – and teacher qualifications if it is to be a serious professional body. And though she doesn’t say it, it must not become a playground for the unions. As she adds:

There can be no better way of enhancing the reputation of the profession than to establish in the minds of the public that it is teachers' professional skills not the structural change so loved by governments that will improve standards for children.

Another prominent supporter of the College, the Conservative MP Charlotte Leslie envisages a professional body getting a grip on poor standards:

A Royal College can also sort out another concern for ministers: how to deal with really bad teaching. We would not tolerate an incompetent surgeon, but a bad teacher can have a devastating effect on a child’s life. If teaching is to be seen as equally professional as medicine, it must have equally exacting standards. A professional organisation, determined to maintain the proud reputation of excellent teaching, would have the credibility, sensitivity and authority to challenge and raise low standards.

Yet, for any Government to be ready to trust the new college, it will need not only to avoid being a union talking shop; it must positively become the true voice of the profession.

The recent blueprint is quite bold in the range of tasks it envisages the College acquiring. It talks of expecting its members to embark on a ‘professional journey’ from subject knowledge to leadership, with certification en route. It plans to run professional development itself and also kitemark external courses. It wants to curate research (something the Sutton Trust/EEF Toolkit is already doing) and share knowledge.

To do all this, it envisages a voluntary membership paying £70-£130 a year in membership fees, which as the blueprint rightly notes, is lower than many comparable bodies, yet is rather more than teachers told NFER they would be willing to pay.

Supporters of the College argue that when the benefits of membership are explained, support rises as does teachers’ willingness to pay a reasonable fee. And there is clearly much to be said for a truly effective teachers’ professional body.

However, all these ambitions will not be realised unless the idea sparks real enthusiasm among those whose support it most needs.

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