David Hart: Top marks for the teaching council

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I never cease to be amazed at the ability of a section of the teaching profession to shoot itself in the foot by criticising the existence of a General Teaching Council (GTC), designed to help give the profession the status it long craved.

I never cease to be amazed at the ability of a section of the teaching profession to shoot itself in the foot by criticising the existence of a General Teaching Council (GTC), designed to help give the profession the status it long craved. Teachers now have a measure of self-government. Yet, it would appear that some want to abolish the GTC.

True, the registration fee of £30 a year is not popular. And there isn't a long queue of candidates for election to the Council - it has even been suggested that some elected members are actually against the GTC. But people have short memories. Self-policing of teacher misconduct and serious incompetence was an aspiration for years. Those who want to pull down the GTC need to remember the following facts: the formation of the Council in 2000 established the teaching profession on the same basis as all other major professions, a profession subject to a self-governing professional body, with powers of registration and regulation and a remit to act in the public interest.

The GTC is about maintaining and improving high standards of professional conduct and competence in the interests of the public - as well as the interests of the profession as a whole. There have been some criticisms of the effectiveness of professionally led regulation. The Shipman inquiry is likely to further criticise the General Medical Council. In some instances, government has intervened to establish a supra-regulator - the Commission for the Regulation of Health Care Professionals. At a time when many other regulators felt that they were drinking in the last-chance saloon, it was a vote of confidence by government in the teaching profession to accord it a professional body with self-regulatory powers.

The GTC started regulating in 2001. It has heard just over 70 cases. It has considered and decided not to proceed with hundreds of minor convictions and cautions, all of which it examines carefully for their relevance to professional well-being and public protection. It has issued 12 prohibition orders, 11 suspension orders, 24 conditional registration orders and 14 reprimands. It works closely in partnership with the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), which continues to exercise List 99 powers.

There has been some criticism in the press. However, carping is easy because the organisation is new. We need to take a wider and longer-term view. Nothing like it existed before for teaching in England.

It has established a register of 500,000 teachers, and set up the machinery for hearing disciplinary and induction appeals cases through its own members. It has written rules, procedures and guidance for all concerned in regulation. It has trained its members to undertake this most difficult of tasks.

For the first time it has taken on board the regulation of seriously incompetent teachers, so that such teachers do not circulate within the system, at least not without receiving the intensive help they may need. Teachers accused of serious misconduct or incompetence (or of failing their induction year) can appear before their peers and put their case. In addition, the system puts in place safeguards in terms of: the Human Rights Act, with, normally, a public hearing, so that justice can be done and be seen to be done; a high standard of proof as appropriate to key decisions affecting someone's professional future; and a right of appeal to the High Court.

The remit of the Council relates to qualified teachers working in maintained schools, non-maintained special schools and pupil referral units. However, it is right that the Council is now examining options for the registration and regulation of other groups teaching pupils, within and beyond schools, most notably, trainees and overseas-trained teachers.

I cannot believe the profession wants to return to the days when the DfES controlled all these decisions. Indeed, the chance of this happening is nil. Government is slimming down, not adding to its responsibilities. So, there is only one option. Make the GTC work: not just in the interests of teachers but also in the interests of parents, pupils and the public at large. After all, they are entitled to know that teacher misconduct and incompetence is not allowed to go unchecked or unregulated.

The writer is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers