Up to scratch: Boosting teacher's professionalism

by Feb 25, 2011 No Comments
A new reaccreditation scheme will boost teachers’ professionalism

Tony FinnTeachers are coming under the microscope from a number of angles of late. No sooner had a review of their training reported than a probe into their terms and conditions was set up. Amidst a squeeze on public finances, tough questions are being asked about what should be expected of these professionals.

For its part, the General Teaching Council for Scotland is taking the responsibility to uphold teacher standards one step further.

The regulatory body is developing a new system of ‘re-accreditation’. As well as meeting the Standard for Full Registration after they qualify, teachers will now have to demonstrate every few years that they maintain that standard. But for GTC Scotland Chief Executive Tony Finn, this is not about putting teachers through an ‘MOT’ to prove their worth. It is about helping them, as professionals, to keep their skills up to the mark.

“We are working very hard at the moment to bring forward something that is very supportive of teachers and which seeks to allow opportunities for them to improve their skills,” Finn explains.

“It’s not a focus of trying to weed out teachers as was the focus in England. What we’re now trying to do is to say: ‘This is about an entitlement to teachers to improve their skills; an opportunity to refocus in areas where they feel they could become better.” The ‘Professional Update Scheme’, likely to be introduced in 2012, will be an opportunity for teachers, Finn argues – a chance for them to address their skills needs. It will not replicate the ‘re-licensing’ scheme introduced by the previous Labour administration in England and since scrapped by the Coalition Government and is not designed to weed out incompetent teachers, he insists. The architecture to do that is there through the GTC’s disciplinary procedures. However, if the scheme works as he hopes, fewer teachers may go down that route.

“Those teachers who would be vulnerable to accusations of incompetence would continue to be dealt with in exactly the same way in the future as they are at present. It’s not about targeting anybody. But if the system works well then what we should have for those same teachers is more opportunities for their needs to be met at an earlier stage.” A working party is being set up to produce the detail, but the scheme would likely involve teachers undergoing a professional review and interview every year at their school and then at the end of a set period – probably five years – having to present evidence to the GTC that they had kept their skills up to date. Finn hopes to pilot the scheme in one or two education authorities before rolling it out nationally.

The new scheme might not be about weeding out the weak, but there is pressure for the GTC to do that. Politicians regularly deplore the low number of teachers that have been struck off the register for incompetence, with only two removed for that reason in the last two years. Meanwhile the Scottish Government’s own Council of Economic Advisers recently called for a performance management system to identify and sack poor teachers. So should the GTC be doing more to rid schools of underperformers?

“Firstly and most importantly, it’s my view, and it’s an informed view – because I worked in schools for over 30 years – that the vast majority of teachers are actually working to very good standards and while there may be some who are better than others, the overall standard is fine in our schools,” Finn responds.

“Now just as there are some journalists who are better than others, some bus drivers who are better than others, some doctors, some dentists, some lawyers, there are some teachers who need help and support. But those of that group who are incompetent – and it’s a big word to use, incompetent – that represents a very, very small proportion of our profession.” Teachers are no different from any other group of professionals, Finn argues. Some are not as good as others, but that does not mean they can or should be permanently barred from the classroom.

“Teachers are like everybody else. There are excellent teachers who really make a difference and there are teachers who are just fine. If anybody supports a professional football team they wouldn’t think twice to consider that some players are much better than others and if you lose your Henrik Larsson figure, you’re not going to replace that figure with someone who’s of equal standing. You’re going to find somebody that’s competent, but it’s the same in teaching.” The idea that there are large numbers of incompetent teachers residing in Scotland’s schools is a fallacy, says Finn. And where those teachers do exist the proper procedures are in place to deal with them.

“So my answer to that would be firstly, there is not a whole pile of teachers waiting to come through. But secondly, there are human rights issues and there are employment rights issues and there are often in this type of case, medical issues, because people who are potentially incompetent often are also subject to medical illness. And sometimes it takes quite a while for an employer to establish the case of incompetence against a teacher who might just be incompetent.” Indeed the teaching profession has been attracting attention recently. Last month the Scottish Government launched a review of the ten-year-old McCrone Agreement, led by Stirling University Principal, Professor Gerry McCormac. With the task of examining the “cost and size of the teacher workforce,” amongst others, the review of the teachers’ deal has been greeted with suspicion by the profession. But how does the regulator feel about the move?

Finn warns that the McCormac Review has a “very, very difficult, challenging responsibility” on its hands. He urges the review team to take the opportunity to find ways to improve quality – not just make cuts.

“It would be a short sighted McCormac Review team which looked only at the context about which teachers have got fear.

I know some of them, I’m trusting them that what they will do is look at what we really need to look at, which is maintenance and improvement of educational standards. And that costs money.” One of the questions the review will have to address is the balance of teachers and paraprofessionals needed in schools.

Indeed, this issue has sparked controversy in Renfrewshire of late, as the council moved to replace teachers with non-teaching staff to provide 2.5 hours per week of cultural, citizenship and sporting activities to pupils.

Finn has condemned the proposal as “professionally unacceptable” and “potentially illegal”.

Renfrewshire Council last week rowed back on the policy. But now that the idea has been put on the table and a review that’s likely to explore it is under way, it is very much a live issue.

Finn warns against such a shift. “I have no evidence that any other authority is considering doing this but I would be surprised if other authorities weren’t watching it,” he says.

He accepts that non-teaching staff, like music instructors and sports coaches, can enhance provision. But he believes they should add to the work of the teacher – not replace it.

Teachers are no doubt entering a challenging period where they are expected to deliver more with less. In that context, Finn is confident the GTC can support the profession and uphold its standards.

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