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Towards a College of Teaching, Jon Coles January 22, 2014

Posted by Alex, Managing Director in Education.
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We featured an article in a recent issue of Academy magazine, by Jon Coles, who is leading the proposal in the UK to establish a Royal College of Teaching. The article can be read in the digital edition here: http://www.johncatt.com/downloads/pdf/magazines/academy/academy_issue3_1/

Since the publication of that article in September 2013, the proposal has further gathered momentum. A ‘blueprint’, summarising proposals for the new member-driven College, will now be published on 10 February 2014.

In the post below, Jon argues further that the teaching profession must now step up and take greater responsibility for itself, and that doing so means establishing a new College of Teaching.

A new professionalism and the Royal College of Teaching

Of all professions, the teaching profession is uniquely vulnerable to externally-imposed change.  While high-profile scandals in other professions lead to enquiries and incremental change, the practice of teaching has been the ever-increasing subject of prescriptive reform.

With a general election next year, the political parties will increasingly jockey for position in education policy.  Each will identify the major areas of reform that they see as a priority – curriculum, qualifications, teaching in the early years, teaching of literacy, school funding reform – and bring forward ideas for change.

Each will attack the record of the others and point out areas where fundamental change is needed to reverse the mistakes of the past.  Each will lay claim to the successes.  Each will assert that ‘the evidence’ supports their views.

Their arguments will have the potential to impact ultimately on everyone in the profession; primary and secondary, state-run and independent, NQTs, Middle Leaders, Heads and governors.

As ever, these arguments will focus on whose version of changing the system is the more compelling and will dominate the internal and external climate in which education is discussed.

But it is this relentless focus on systems that, to me, hides the real debate that needs to take place; on how we grow the value of the human capital in education.

Because the aim of education reform is that more teachers should succeed with more children in the future than in the past.  And the key to improving educational standards is the growth in quality, knowledge and skills of teachers and leaders in schools.

Educational practice is too susceptible to political intervention…

Take the example of early reading.  The level of intervention has grown progressively over the last generation from the National Curriculum, national testing, the implementation of the National Literacy Strategy and its various revisions through to the current government’s phonics screening test and support programme.

At each stage, the public and media have tended to welcome government’s wise attempts to tackle illiteracy in the teeth of opposition from a recalcitrant teaching profession.

Now, each of these initiatives had, at the least, admirable elements and history would not be on my side if I argued that government should never intervene.  Arguing that only teachers should determine the curriculum is like saying that only doctors can decide what counts as illness.  We would soon want intervention in medicine if our ailments were ignored by doctors who claimed to know better.

But when it comes to professional practice – the ‘how’ of teaching – government has come routinely to make pronouncements of a sort it would never make about medical practice.  The willingness of politicians to debate the pros and cons of phonics on Newsnight is not matched by their enthusiasm to argue open versus laparoscopic surgery in an attempt to persuade swing voters.

Of course, you might say that this difference exists because medical practice is just too important to leave to the untrained.  People would die if clinical practice were determined by non-clinicians.

But if no-one doubts the importance of medicine, then surely the public doesn’t regard education as fundamentally unimportant?   Surveys over the last 30 years have consistently shown education to be one of the public’s top concerns.

No.  I don’t think that the public is relaxed about people lacking important expertise determining practice.  I think that the reason is deeper: whereas the public believes that there is such a thing as professional medical expertise, and that doctors have it, there is deep public scepticism that there is such a thing as professional educational expertise at all.

…and expectations of teachers’ training and ongoing professional development are low

Nothing has damaged the development of teaching more than the myth that teachers are ‘born not made’; yet it is easy to see how it arises.  The interpersonal skills, charisma and humour that characterise great teachers are not given to everyone.  But the deep subject knowledge and the skills that those teachers have in questioning technique, planning and preparing lessons, formative assessment, inspiring curiosity and creating diligent students are the hard-won product of training, study, observation and reflection, not a serendipitous outcome of good genes.

Yet in teaching where there is no requirement to maintain and develop professional knowledge and skill year on year.  In order to maintain good professional standing in law, accountancy, engineering and many other fields, a professional must undertake and provide evidence of further professional development each year. But it is possible that a teacher can go through an entire career without ever being required formally to update their knowledge of their subject or their skills as a teacher.

Nor is there (as there is for example in engineering or surgery) any requirement that to become a ‘fully fledged’ or senior member of the profession, a higher level of knowledge and skill must be achieved.  While all new engineers aspire to Chartered Engineer status and surgeons might aspire to Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons, there is no equivalent goal for the new teacher to work towards.  In many other professions, achieving that senior professional status is a major motivator for new members of the profession to extend their levels of knowledge and skill.

A new Royal College of Teaching will be an important part of the solution

We badly need an authoritative, nationally-respected Royal College of Teaching.  It should set and monitor professional standards, promote professional development, oversee the development of the evidence base, require its use in practice, and speak with authority.

Government currently occupies much of this space, largely because nobody else does.  But the imperatives which can drive a government are often too short term, reactive to circumstances and dependent on political administration to be the basis for the development of a profession.  And no government body will ever command sufficient professional confidence to win over teachers.

Instead, we need an institution established by that large number of teachers who wish to establish and maintain excellence in their profession.  It should draw together schools and teachers of all sorts, employers, subject associations, learned societies and leading academics.  It should take responsibility for the teaching standards and for setting qualification standards for entry to the profession.  It should set standards for continuing professional development and promote high quality professional development programmes.

Of course, there are risks to this.  A body which was weakly governed or took poor decisions would be a liability.  But such a body would not win the confidence of teachers.  There should be no mandation of membership: the new Royal College must win the confidence of teachers through the quality of what it does.

The good news is that a large and growing coalition of people is now working together to bring the Royal College into existence.  A recent consultation on the proposals for a Royal College organised by the Princes’ Teaching Institute received more replies than many government consultations and a more overwhelmingly positive response than any government consultation is ever likely to do.  The task now is to refine the proposals in the light of the responses and then look to move into implementation.

It is an idea whose time has clearly come.  In ten years from now, as we contemplate the run-in to the 2025 general election, we can expect a more resilient teaching profession – in which the Royal College is a significant voice in setting the terms of political debate – or in which the politicians have the confidence to leave such discussions to the professionals.

Jon Coles, chief executive of United Learning.

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