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Why teachers should be sceptical of a new College of Teaching

Trainee teachers may need a lot of convincing. Stefan Wemuth/PA Wire

Barely one month after the current government was elected in 2010, the secretary of state for education Michael Gove announced the abolition of the General Teaching Council for England. Now, only a few months from the next election, his successor Nicky Morgan has committed to establishing a College of Teaching.

While not a like-for-like replacement, the similarities are sufficient enough to argue that this represents a significant policy volte-face. Ironically, for a move claimed to take the politics out of education, it highlights precisely why teachers feel so frustrated by the interventions of politicians. Not only does policy swing one way and another between governments, it does so within the lifetime of a government.

Proposals on the table

The proposed College of Teaching “needs to be independent of government and led by the profession if it is to be truly successful” according to the government ministers advocating its establishment.

The body will take responsibility for promoting professional standards, and in time could oversee their enforcement and the standards for teacher training. It will also promote teachers’ access to training and development. According to the proposals, this will include a framework of evidence-based professional development in which: “Evaluation of impact will be hard-wired into these professional development projects from the outset to build a clear evidence based around "what works”.’ A consultation on the proposals was launched on December 9 and runs until early February.

The principle of a College of Teaching is, according to the proposals, apparently: “almost universally agreed upon by experts”. But it is important to be sceptical. Especially when teachers appear unconvinced it will drive up standards – as a poll by the website Schools Improvement has highlighted.

A question of independence

The reason for this scepticism is linked to how independent the college is likely to be in reality. Problems will arise if it has little more than a licensed independence in which professional autonomy will be contingent on the profession demonstrating “good behaviour”.

The desire to be seen to be independent and “free of political influence” is clearly viewed by those who wrote the proposals as central to securing teacher support. But they also make very clear that it will operate in a context where real political pressure is imposed by assessment bodies apparently “independent” of the political process.

The emphasis in the document on “world class teachers”, and the almost obligatory referencing of Singapore, South Korea, Shanghai and Finland, highlight the influence of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)‘s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) league tables. “PISA envy” is now driving policy at a national level in many countries.

In England, this is reinforced through the disproportionate influence of Ofsted, as the “independent” body with the power to decide what is “good” or not in education. It is these pressures that explain teachers’ principal grievance – the apparently relentless increase in their workload. They also reflect the democratic deficit in the English state education system whereby key policy issues are determined by bodies outside of any transparent political process.

More autonomy, or more control?

With the drivers of markets, managerialism and high-stakes testing in place, it becomes possible for government to step back, safe in the knowledge that a complex web of mechanisms – league tables, performance-related pay and Ofsted – can be relied on to do the work.

The danger is that a College of Teaching simply becomes another element in this web of control that frames how teachers are expected to do their work. It provides the appearance of autonomy and independence, but in reality it serves to reinforce the culture of compliance that bedevils English state education.

This is because what will be valued will be what the College has decided is “what works”. Asking teachers to focus on what works, and privileging the research methods often associated with such questions, runs the risk of creating new orthodoxies. Through this, career advancement remains contingent on implementing what others have decided is “good”, or what constitutes “best practice”. Rather than liberating teachers from the dead hand of Ofsted’s “one best way” of teaching, the risk is that such approaches are subtly reproduced and then legitimated by apparently being “evidence-based”.

Wider questions closed down

The focus on “what works” deflects attention from a wider set of questions about “what matters?” or “what’s wrong?”. For example, teachers are encouraged to ask what works to close achievement gaps in their classroom. But they are not encouraged to ask wider questions on how to close these gaps when governments preside over ever-widening inequalities.

At the same time, the spaces in which these more critical questions might be posed are progressively closed down, illustrated by the undermining of educational research in university-based schools of education. What research takes place will be increasingly focused on securing improvement in relation to a narrow range of outcomes. This will be reinforced through the influence of those able to fund and commission research. The result will be less about a self-improving school system and more about a self-reproducing school system.

If teachers are confined to asking “what works?” while only the policy elites get to decide “what matters” then teachers remain shut out of the debates about the really big questions: what is education for and how should young people be helped to understand and engage with the world they are growing up in?

A new professional voice?

This is why teachers should welcome the government’s proposals with considerable caution. While superficially attractive, it is not at all clear that the proposed College of Teaching will give teachers the professional voice they have often been denied.

It could be argued that teachers already have a professional voice, through their unions, that is already independent, democratic and can claim to represent the overwhelming majority of the profession – criteria the new college is unlikely to be able to meet. It is governments that have chosen not to listen to that voice: Michael Gove clearly presented the case for a College of Teaching as an alternative to teacher unionism.

Perhaps now is the time for teachers to demand a much more ambitious prospectus for change than that currently on offer. This should be based on teachers having both autonomy and influence in relation to all the key elements of their work – learning and teaching conditions, professional development and the fundamental aspects of education policy. Professional agency in these three different domains are the real features of a high-status teaching profession.

This concept of a new democratic professionalism underpins a much more positive vision of what teaching can be like, but also a much more hopeful and optimistic vision of what education should be like.

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