The lack of a proper professional body is undermining their standards and status in the classroom.
By Charlotte Leslie
12:01AM BST 01 May 2012
Growing up with a surgeon as a father has its downsides. When he was home, we were often treated to rather gory dinner-time conversations, and loud telephone calls detailing surgical procedures that I really didn’t want to hear about over my shepherd’s pie.
But, years before I thought I might land up in Parliament, it also gave me a glimpse of the gulf between how politicians understand health care, and how the professionals experience it on a daily basis. Thank goodness, I always thought, that it wasn’t a minister telling my dad how to do a hip replacement, or some other dinner-dampening operation, but his basic professional standards.
For all the political control over the structures of the NHS, what actually goes on in the operating theatre – what is acceptable practice, what new techniques and medicines should be introduced – remains firmly in the hands of the people who know it best: the doctors. Within the historic Royal Colleges, such as those of surgeons or physicians, excellent practice is celebrated, and proper standards are set, pushed and protected. The Colleges also provide a research base, in the form of journals and conferences, as well as a community championing the highest standards in the specialist areas they represent.
It works well. The medical unions – such as the BMA – can get on with looking out for doctors’ welfare and benefits, while the Royal Colleges champion the standards of practice. Their views are respected because they are the voice of doctors, for doctors.
Yet, oddly, when it comes to the professionals whom we entrust to with the development of the next generation, things are very different. The Education Select Committee, on which I sit, today publishes a report which confirms the obvious: excellent teachers are the key to an excellent education system. With nothing less than the future of the workforce and economy resting on teachers’ shoulders, you would expect their job to enjoy a similar status to medicine. But it doesn’t. What’s going wrong?
A Royal College can also sort out another concern for ministers: how to deal with really bad teaching. We would not tolerate an incompetent surgeon, but a bad teacher can have a devastating effect on a child’s life. If teaching is to be seen as equally professional as medicine, it must have equally exacting standards. A professional organisation, determined to maintain the proud reputation of excellent teaching, would have the credibility, sensitivity and authority to challenge and raise low standards.
For talented would-be teachers, one major turn-off is that the profession has no clear career path. In medicine, there is clear progress from junior doctor to senior consultant. But if you’re a superb teacher, what can you expect? Generally, great classroom ability is rewarded by being promoted off towards management.
For some, this is the right route, but not for others. There is no teaching equivalent of the medical consultant: someone excellent at doing the job on the front line, who leads within their area of expertise and inspires others.
There have been attempts to create something like this; the teaching unions have worked to create career paths and “continual professional development” for their members; a historic and diminished Royal College for teachers still exists, which has piloted interesting schemes; and the Government recently introduced the role of “master teacher”. But the lack of an overarching structure means that there are too many solutions, few of which enjoy any status outside teaching.
A Royal College would provide a universally recognised career progression to “consultant teacher”. It would champion the evidence-based, professionally driven standards that give medicine its status; keep politics out of the classroom; and attract and retain brighter, better teachers. But it can’t be politicians who create it: that would defeat the point. It must be driven by the profession itself. In an education landscape cluttered with state institutions, all trying to fill that role, politicians have a duty to clear the way for such a college, so teaching gets the status it deserves.
Charlotte Leslie is Conservative MP for Bristol North West and a member of the Education Select Committee