I was fortunate enough to wangle a place at the launch of the Chartered College of Teaching inaugural conference today (16 Feb 2017) in spite of not yet being a member. And I mean that “yet”. I’m a big fan of the idea of a professional body or, in the more earnest jargon, learned society. In fact, last year I applied to become one of the founding trustees of the College but, after a very tough process, was informed by email that it was not to be. It was quite a blow as I would have loved to have played a part in the creation and governance of this body.
But, in spite of this support (quite possibly because of it) I have some significant concerns about how we as a profession grasp this historic opportunity to put ourselves on a level playing field with surgeons, accountants, surveyors and a host of other professions. They are concerns that I would have liked to have voiced as a trustee but must instead content myself with expressing them as a mere blogger.
And so it was that I was relishing the chance to hear all about where the College has got to in the admittedly still early days of its existence under the leadership of Dame Alison Peacock. Perhaps unsurprisingly, but also perhaps surprisingly, I left (in the spirit of full disclosure, halfway through the day) with many more questions than answers. This post, therefore, is about the questions.
What should be the relationship between the CCoT and the government?
For many teachers out there, this is the biggest of questions. The nature of the funding for the College in its incubation period has led some to question the level of independence from government that members can expect. Coupled with the funding issue are the not-so-fond memories of the General Teaching Council (GTC) earlier in the century: memories not of the interesting research work done by the GTC but of the disciplinary processes that came to define it in the eyes of teachers.
With this very much in mind it was therefore something of a double-edged sword in having the Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, as the only politician represented on the agenda for the day.
Greening’s speech had three core strands. The first, anodyne but annoying, was the now-traditional gushing praise for the “inspirational” profession accompanied by the de rigueur personal recollection of an exemplar from her own school days. I accept that this is now a ‘thing’ and would probably draw more attention should it not be done, but politicians need to be more original in order to fully convince us that it is something more than a “softening up” manœuvre. But, essentially, no problem here.
The second, which I will say more about later as it was the most interesting part for me, was a consistent comparison between the CCoT and her own experiences as a chartered accountant.
But it was the third element that I found most troubling, not in terms of Greening herself but for the niggles about the independence of the College. This element saw Greening make a significant number of policy positioning statements, none of them new but each a warming-up of previously-made statements; not least of all the soundbite that rumours of the demise of QTS would be “NOT ON MY WATCH” (my capitals, her emphasis). But Justine is a politician, and a well-spoken and adept one at that, so what was the worry with an MP doing what they do at an educonference?
My beef with it all was that the proverbial elephants in the room, increased selection and the likely imposition of more Grammar Schools alongside reducing per pupil funding and a deeply unconvincing ‘fair’ funding formula in which nobody is a real winner, were not mentioned (for so many reasons) by Greening and, crucially, not picked up on until John Tomsett’s talk some time later. Instead, following polite applause from the audience – indicative of how well the SoS had done at a potentially tough gig – we were immediately invited to give a second round of applause. It felt like an imposition and it didn’t give one the conviction that independence yet sits well with the College.
One of the key features of various professional bodies in recent years has been the level of challenge that they pose to government, particularly when policy has seemed to pose a significant or even existential crisis for those professions. These interventions can be particularly powerful when an organisation making them does not have the ability to take its members out on strike and so is not perceived to have something to gain or lose in doing so other than the integrity of the profession itself.
This question about the relationship with government is one that the CCoT cannot afford to dwell on for too long. There are too many felt impacts of government policy already implemented and too many other policies in the pipeline that require a professional body’s attention (picking arguments without picking fights, of course) and well-informed, emphatic but politic positions will need to be taken if the CCoT is to become a worthy guardian of the profession.
What can the CCoT learn from other learned societies and professional bodies?
This question brings me back to the parts of Greening’s speech that I enjoyed the most. She began by talking about her professional identity being as an accountant, not as a politician, and she kept riffing on this theme all the way through. In fact, as I made clear in the previous section, I would have far rather that she had stuck with this all the way through rather than flatter us or enlarge upon likely policy areas although, to be fair, she did some of this with a tangential link to her own professional identity.
What was missing from her talk was a sense of what her own professional association did for her professional development and sense of professionalism as an accountant. Such an explanation would, I believe given that I know a number of accountants, have shown just how far we have to go as a profession and how much time we need to be prepared and willing to give the College to take us there. The downside for Greening would have been that it would have thrown into sharp relief the limitations of some of the proposals she was making, particularly redesigned NPQs that will somehow miraculously be as well regarded as MBAs. We have MAs for that but are notably lacking professional qualifications that aren’t aimed at school leaders.
Not only was the role of our professional body’s unique contribution to CPDL for teachers missing from the minister’s talk, it appeared nowhere else in the day and I haven’t seen mention of it anywhere else, yet. Chartered, fellow and master status (or their degendered equivalents) for classroom teachers, rewarded via tough assessment against the highest standards and leading to enhanced status, including pay, has surely got to be one of core things we could take from other professional bodies to make the CCoT valued by colleagues up and down the country. Without this we will surely be left with a body that simply rubber-stamps government-mandated leadership programmes which prioritise working practices that deliver what the government wants us to deliver, and that won’t do at all.
What does the CCoT want with regard to professionalism and professional identity for teachers?
There was much to like from many of the speakers at this inaugural conference but for me it was Professor Rob Coe who gave me most hope that the College and its fellow-travellers are seriously considering the overarching question of ‘professionalism’ and ‘identity’ for teachers. His talk was the highlight of my day, building upon his writing of many years and introducing me to the work of an academic who has written copiously on the importance of trust and vulnerability within the classroom, within the staffroom and across the educational system.
Whilst much of the rest of the day hinted at what these twin concepts of ‘professionalism’ and ‘identity’ might mean for an emergent Chartered College of Teaching, I don’t think that they pinned it down securely enough for it to be anything but fleeting. John Tomsett gave clues at how the Research School network might link with the College, an incredible panel of female educators articulated powerful conceptions of how evidence-based practice works at its best and Tanya Byron’s session looked like a cracker in bringing moral purpose to the table.
In spite of all these strong contributions there wasn’t a sense that we were working together to comprehend how we weave these separate strands into something meaningful as a professional identity for teachers under the remit of the College. Perhaps that is asking too much of a traditionally-styled conference with little audience interaction, and so the overall feeling was one of an interesting INSET day full of diverse and powerful inputs rather than a gathering up of golden threads for a collaborative inching towards something more coherent. Perhaps that will come over time through more human-scale interactions with members, but it will be needed at some point in the not too distant future.
What can the CCoT uniquely offer for building an evidence-based, research-informed teaching profession?
I mentioned above the panel on research chaired by Ann Mroz of the Times Educational Supplement. I caught up with one of the panellists later to let her know that, after five years of attending these educonferences, this was my favourite panel discussion of the lot. And I meant it. There were no attempts to sow dischord in the selection of the panellists as a way of holding the interest of a large room and so the whole thing hung upon skilful questioning and answering. Each participant had a unique perspective with significant overlap but also the gentle, nudging challengeness that one would expect to find in a normal discussion but which is often replaced by bombastic discourtesy in a panel discussion.
But, and it’s a big “but” for the College, however good the debate was I left unconvinced about what it told me about the role and remit of the CCoT. As I tapped out my 140 character updates I saw more than one tweeter articulating the view that this felt like a ResearchED session. Indeed at one point halfway through, one of the panellists expressed the hope that they would address the specific role of the College in enabling the profession to become more evidence-based and/or research-informed.
Instead it was left to the rushed final question for which panellists were invited to give bullet-pointed responses. After three had given their responses it was the final comment, by Summer Turner, that got to the nub of it when she expressed the view that the CCoT had to use its various forms of capital – human, intellectual and, yes, financial – to offer something more than what ResearchED and others already do. And there, in a bullet point, was the essence of a debate that ought to have been had, but wasn’t.
Many of us who are fully and hugely supportive of the drive for research use in education are becoming increasingly concerned about the shallowness of its penetration into the profession. It is an easy soundbite for professional and amateur politicians alike within education. It is the flavour of the month with funding agencies and therefore reducible to another revenue stream for school leaders in hard-pressed times. It is the complex process too easily simplified into quick-fix schemes under an accountability funnel that threatens to gunge us all, no matter how secure we think we may be. The College has a potentially unique role to play that counters some of these ‘perverse incentives’ for government, universities and schools. What that role is has yet to be determined but it will need to be something beyond making journal articles freely available to its members.
How can the CCoT ensure that it represents the interests of teachers ahead of school leaders or others?
This is the one question that I know vexes the most ardent critics of the College. Two people said to me yesterday that they sincerely hope that one day in the future that the College will change its title to include the word “teachers” in place of the word “teaching” to bring the body more into line with other professional bodies that reference the professionals rather than the profession in their titles.
Of course, the choice of Peacock as the CEO of the College is one that will sharpen this debate for some. Sure she was a teacher but her prominence as a well-regarded school (indeed system) leader is one that the naysayers will regard critically. It will be necessary for her to continue to talk, as she did yesterday, about the importance of the core business of classroom teaching and steer a relatively wide berth of the leadership domain that ought to be the focus of the NCTL or even a proper professional body for school leaders, which is apparently in the pipeline.
But, as ever, the actions must match the words if the words are considered to be more than rhetoric. The inaugural conference was an opportunity to hear from classroom teachers about their hopes, fears and plans for the College, but these were voices that were missing from the vast majority of the agenda. Instead, it was the voices of politicians, academics, consultants and school leaders that resounded around the cavernous hall. Without a delegate list I am unable to talk about the composition of the audience but I’d suggest that there’s a strong possibility that its location on a weekday (albeit a half-term for some) might have meant it was a dominantly leadership audience being addressed by a predominantly leadership platform.
It’s a tough ask of a newly-formed body that needs to get the membership numbers ticking upwards at an incredible rate in order to remain financially viable past its incubation period for it not to try to be all things to all people. What the College has on its side in this is that the mass membership it requires are far less interested in pathways to the ivory tower than they are in clearing the pathways to effective classroom practice by challenging the inherently ridiculous practices around lesson planning, assessment and marking, behaviour management and data-tracking perpetuated by those in the ivory towers. If they are a truly effective voice for the powerless within schools the College may just find that influence can be achieved from the bottom-up.
How can the CCoT lead in the development of truly effective professional accreditation?
I’ve touched upon this throughout this post so I’ll recap here rather than gild the lily any more. In setting themselves at a remove from the DfE the College can help us see beyond the NPQs or equivalent and towards an ongoing re-evaluation of teachers, by teachers and for teaching. In learning from other professional bodies the College can create a progression route through to teaching and teacher excellence that isn’t anything to do with leadership as a hierarchical or positional thing.
In doing so the College can perhaps contribute more to a growing sense of professionalism and professional identity than it can by hosting conferences and one-off training events, particularly if this professional accreditation is evidence-informed and requires of its participants that they become research-savvy in terms of improving their professional practice in a holistic manner.
The end result, which could take decades to achieve (most learned societies have been built over centuries), would be a clear articulation of what it means to be a teacher at member, chartered, fellow and master levels. If we get those things right through the Chartered College of Teaching it may just be that we will significantly improve the quality of school leadership along the way; through teacher influence, through shining a reflected light upon shonky leadership programmes and through helping better teachers move into leadership roles.
Why do we need a Chartered College of Teaching anyway?
I’ve deliberately left the biggest question of all until the end, but I’ll be brief in answering it. To my mind we need our own College because we don’t have one in spite of our profession being one of the biggest political footballs of all, and not merely for politicians. We need it because in spite of the proliferation of professional bodies that are related to teaching (DfE, Ofsted, NCTL, Teaching Schools Council, the teacher and school leader unions, RSCs and their Headteacher Boards, MATs and academy chains, etc, etc, etc) there are none that solely and exclusively represent the requirements of teachers to be able to teach more and more effectively the longer they remain in role and in the classroom.
Of course, there will be significant overlap in the future work of the College with some of these bodies, and many more besides, but it is precisely in these areas of overlap (not to mention the shadowy areas of underlap where teachers’ voices have no effective representation) where a strong, independent, informed, articulate and ultimately effective voice are needed. The lack of one has plagued us for decades now and have allowed teaching to be kicked around from pillar to post by all other parties whilst teachers watch helplessly from the sidelines.
But don’t get me wrong on this, we need to have to be worthy of such a body too. It’s not enough for us to pay the £39 membership fee (introductory offer) and then to sit back uncritically whilst the College takes its understandably uncertain first steps and makes its inevitable early mistakes. It’s not enough for us to sing along with the crowd when we know that it is not the right thing to do. Nor, in my opinion, should we just pick up our football and leave the pitch or entertain ourselves by simply offering caustic commentary from the sidelines.
Instead, and this post is my first attempt to do so, we need to engage critically but optimistically with our College. Given the abysmal and utterly anticipated failure of the GTC we need to be wary of the maxim “fool me once shame on you but fool me twice and shame on me”. If the CCoT is not at least a partial success by the mid-2020s we can’t bank on having a third opportunity to be guardians of a professional body for teachers and teaching. If the truth be told, without such a professional body in the turbulent years ahead with rapid (and sometimes rabid) deregulation of teacher supply, training, salaries and conditions of employment I’m not sure we will able to call ourselves a profession at all.