Teacher accountability is a prickly issue that inevitably invokes the ire of unions. But as governments (politicians) strive to drive up education standards, it’s one that’s increasingly on the agenda. Ed Balls this summer announced plans for a five year ‘MOT’ for teachers in England while stateside, President Obama said a large chunk of federal education aid from his administration’s stimulus package would go to school systems that address the issue of accountability. Now closer to home similar moves have been mooted.
Any shifts in this direction are guaranteed to be controversial as Balls’ announcement confirmed. While the schools’ secretary presented the reforms as a boost to teachers’ professionalism, critics slammed them as another layer of bureaucracy that will only add to the immense pressure already on teachers, leaving them less able to teach and more prone to burn out.
Scotland’s teachers have traditionally faced less scrutiny than their southern counterparts.
They are contractually required to undertake 35 hours a year of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) but, with the exception of misconduct, once they are initially accredited they retain their licence for life.
In its history, the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) has only struck off one teacher for incompetence. But lately a system of ‘professional re-accreditation’ has been floated.
As the GTCS goes through the process of gaining independent status, the system could be within the remit of the independent body.
Tony Finn GTCS Chief Executive confirms: “No announcement has yet been made by the Scottish Government about whether reaccreditation of teachers will feature in plans for an independent GTC Scotland.
Consequently, the council is in the early stages of considering this issue. Before we take this further, however, we will be speaking to all of the key stakeholders including the local authorities and trades unions to ensure that any initiative reflects a balanced consensus and assists teachers to do their jobs as well as they can.” Finn is keen to stress the high standard of teaching in Scotland, however, and that any new system would support teachers’ professional development. “It is not anticipated that any agreement would follow the style and requirements of relicensing recently announced in England,” he adds.
Few details about those English plans have yet been revealed but according to the Government’s White Paper, teachers will face a review every five years to ensure they are fit to teach. A new ‘licence to teach’ will be phased in from September 2010, under which teachers will be regularly assessed by headteachers to retain their licence. The approach essentially challenges the principle of continuous tenure for teachers, making their licence conditional on performance.
Policies like these may be relatively cheap to introduce and chime well with voters, especially with an election approaching, but is there real merit in them?
One English teaching union has given the reform its provisional backing. At present teachers in England have no CPD entitlement so if it’s tied to professional development provision, the NASUWT would welcome it. “If you look at things like medicine and law, there are entitlements that practitioners have as part of their registration that say, ‘You have to access at least 30 hours of professional development each year’. Teachers don’t have that in England so if it’s about saying that part of the licence will be that teachers will get access to that training then that would be a good thing,” says Darren Northcott, National Official for Education, NASUWT.
According to the National Union of Teachers (NUT), however, a relicencing regime is totally unnecessary and counter-productive. Teachers in England are already subject to a number of checks and assessments, the union argues, from a system of ‘performance management’ to Ofsted inspections. This initiative looks likely to lie on top of what’s already in place rather than replace it. And the end result is a degraded profession, says Christine Blower, General Secretary of the NUT: “I think that the real difficulty that we’ve got now is that teachers are over scrutinised and they don’t have sufficient ownership over what they do. And that what we really need is not someone saying: ‘Well, we’ll have a scheme to relicence them because that will make them more professional’, we need people saying: ‘Teaching is a valued and professional job as it is’ and discussing in a much fuller way with the profession what it is that’s a useful system of accountability and what it is that isn’t a useful system of accountability.” Scrutiny is also the enemy of creativity in the classroom, according to Guntars Catlaks, Research Coordinator at Education International, the Brussels-based global federation of teaching unions and institute of educational research. “Teaching is a creative occupation to start with,” Catlaks says. “You have to be trained and educated to be a professional, you know what you are doing, you are devoted to your job, you went through a very good, long education leading up to that, you were selected. But once you are selected it’s very important that you enjoy that level of pedagogical freedom and are allowed to experiment in your classroom, you are allowed to be creative, you are allowed to look for evidence and ways of working that are innovative. And you have to have access to CPD – that is very important… This whole trend towards performancebased measurement, testing, evaluation from outside, is actually undermining this very seriously.” The UK has been a forerunner in this ‘Anglo-Saxon experimental model’ of relicencing, together with New Zealand and some states in Australia and the US. In the Australian state of Victoria, one of the world’s leading education systems, teachers have to renew their registration every five years by demonstrating that they have undertaken professional development and maintained their professional standards.
Another model education system with a very different approach is Finland. In OECD education surveys, Finland often comes out top on both standards and equality. Catlaks believes its style of teacher regulation is key to its educational strength. “If we look at the teacher factor behind that success and we compare it with other countries, in Finland, teachers undergo very long and strong education. They study for five to six years, leading to a Masters degree. Then there is strong competition to enter this education in the first place and not everybody graduates but those who graduate go to schools. So there is strong selection leading up to the teaching profession but once they are employed they enjoy great pedagogical freedom, they are not subject to any kind of checking or testing and there are no centralised examination systems in place for teachers. And being secure under the tenure working agreements and having this pedagogical freedom is hugely important.” An interesting idea, in light of comments last week by honorary research fellow at Glasgow University John McLaren, that stronger teachers would do more than smaller class sizes to improve Scottish education.
Scotland has remained closer to the Nordic and Continental European model of continuous tenure for teachers and a shift towards the Anglo-Saxon school would no doubt meet with resistance from unions. The EIS, Scotland’s largest teaching union has “serious reservations” about the introduction of a system of reaccreditation. General Secretary Ronnie Smith warns: “In a climate where collegiality is scarcely a reality in many schools and where structures of development and support for teachers within schools remain frequently ill-developed, it is hard to see how a process of reaccreditation is likely to gain support from the teaching profession.” No one would want a system of excessive scrutiny that leaves Scottish teachers struggling under a bureaucratic mess and unable to teach creatively. But facing some of the same conditions as the medical and legal profession could be no bad thing for their professional recognition. If implemented sensibly, a reaccreditation system could boost the status of one of the most important jobs in society.