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College of Teaching will be an opportunity for teachers, not a threat to their independence

The teachers need teaching too. Students in class via Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

As politicians get out of their starting blocks early this year now campaigning for the general election has begun, it’s hard not to be sceptical about new education policy announcements. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are making teacher quality and standards a policy battleground. But one relative point of agreement has emerged: Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have all voiced interest in the idea of establishing a College of Teaching.

I read with interest what the University of Nottingham’s Howard Stevenson had to say on The Conversation about the latest proposals by secretary of state for education, Nicky Morgan, for a College of Teaching. Stevenson claims there are many reasons to be sceptical. But I seem to have understood the announcement very differently to him.

Not looking back

While I agree it will be hard to get something like this off the ground, the case for scepticism remains unproven. His comparisons with the General Teaching Council for England (GTCE), which was abolished in 2010 by Morgan’s predecessor Michael Gove, are like comparing the proverbial apples and pears – the concepts are so very different. Comparisons with similar bodies in the medical field, for example the British Medical Association, are much more relevant and make the case for the College much more compelling.

A College of Teaching which raises the status of teaching as a profession and promotes public confidence in, and respect for, teachers can surely only be a good thing. Unlike the GTCE, voluntary membership of a College of Teaching would be positively based on teachers’ own aspirations, development and recognition, rather than being concerned with regulation and striking off.

Picking polls

In his article, Stevenson cites a Twitter poll showing that 64% of respondents expressed a lack of confidence that a College of Teaching would drive up standards – as opposed to 36% who thought it would. As the basis of scepticism, this is pretty weak and seems to be a sign of a healthy unwillingness to commit to a fairly narrow question until the College’s mission is more clearly defined by a teacher-led development and consultation process.

Another survey conducted by the Princes Teaching Institute in February 2014 found 82% of just over 900 teachers surveyed either agreed or strongly agreed that there is a role for a “new, independent, member-driven College of Teaching”. This went up to 87% among the 288 headteachers surveyed. Another poll published by the Sutton Trust showed that approximately 40% of teachers were in favour of the College while 40% wanted to know more – but just 20% were unfavourable.

No ‘web of control’

Stevenson’s more substantive point is about the independence of the organisation. I absolutely agree this is of utmost importance – its independence must be jealously guarded. David Bell, the former permanent secretary in the Department for Education and now vice-chancellor of the University of Reading, has since called for less political interference in schools. This is spot on.

But I think to view the College of Teaching – a membership organisation by teachers, for teachers – as part of a “web of control” is wide of the mark. The independence of the organisation will need to be ensured through the open election of teachers to a body that is led and overseen by teaching professionals, not government officials.

Some may question whether the College will have any real power if it is not able to set policy or operate as a regulatory body – but we need to remember that there are other professions, mainly in medicine, where chartered status is an accepted standard.

As a teacher-led independent body, it’s actually more likely than not to be quite fiercely independent. There is often talk of trusting teachers, but little follow-through. The College presents a great opportunity to do that and do that well. I see no reason to doubt that this body cannot work in this way if the profession has an appetite to take it seriously – and there are early signs that it does.

Teaching unions have had mixed reactions to the idea of a new College of Teaching. The Nation Union of Teachers has said the proposals are a “positive step in the right direction” but the NASUWT union has expressed more caution – supporting the principle but questioning the credibility and value of a College.

Stevenson raises the question whether teachers already have a professional voice, through these unions. But my understanding is that the College of Teaching is absolutely not about curtailing the unions, but about working alongside them. It is not an attempt to “take over” any territory either – unions will continue to focus on pay and conditions as well as contributing strongly to the debate on professional practice, and they will continue to provide professional development too.

Teachers are hungry for ‘what works’

I am also slightly disappointed in Stevenson’s criticism of a likely focus the College of Teaching may have on “what works?” While I do accept there may be a risk of “asking teachers to focus on what works, and privileging the methods often associated with such questions” in a way that is “contingent on implementing what others have decided is ‘good’, or what constitutes ‘best practice’”, this is making assumptions about who potentially owns the right to both ask and answer such questions.

What works is what teachers want. Check mark via djdarkflower/Shutterstock

To most teachers, what really matters is the quality of learning and the teaching that supports it. My own research shows the strong correlation between research and the quality of evidence-based, enquiry-driven teacher development and standards. This means interrogating a broad range of evidence on education policy and practice – and of course, situating it in broader complex socio-economic contexts.

Stevenson talks of spaces for debate in education research being closed down. But surely the College of Teaching presents an opportunity to create a new space that will foster those debates between practitioners and academics. A key role for universities and other academic organisations might be to help provide that broad evidence base and in doing so help guard the College of Teaching’s independence.

Next read: Counting the costs of moving teacher training out of universities

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