Keep teachers’ personal lives private

Teachers should resist the General Teaching Council’s new code of conduct telling them how to behave outside of work.

Teachers in England and Wales face the prospect of having their personal behaviour outside of work being held up to scrutiny by the new General Teaching Council for England (GTC) code of conduct which is due to come into effect next month.

The eighth principle of the code states that teachers must ‘maintain reasonable standards in their own behaviour that enable them to maintain an effective learning environment and also to uphold public trust and confidence in the profession’ (1). This gives rise to the prospect of teachers being brought before the GTC on charges of misconduct if a member of the public takes exception to a teacher enjoying a night out on the town or for many other activities which are not illegal but may be deemed to be unsuitable behaviour for a teacher.

NASUWT, one of the main teaching unions with over 250,000 members, has already launched a campaign to have the new code scrapped rejecting claims that there was any justification provided for changing the existing code that has been in force since 2000. Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said the new code ‘is riddled with vague statements which are open to wide interpretation and abuse, putting the careers and jobs of teachers and headteachers at risk’ (2).

The chief executive of the GTC, Keith Bartley, responded by saying: ‘It is a well-established principle that individuals have a duty to uphold the reputation of their chosen profession [but] we are absolutely explicit that the code does not in any way intrude into teachers’ private lives.’ Bartley told the Guardian that there had only been two instances where misconduct outside of school had been the subject of disciplinary cases: a teacher who encouraged unsafe sex on a website and another who had appeared on a porn programme on TV (3). Yet the examples Bartley puts forward seem precisely to intrude on teachers’ actions outside of work and suggest that what is suitable behaviour will be a subjective judgement made by the GTC.

The GTC, which started work in September 2000 to act as a unified professional body for teachers, has little support amongst teachers despite the fact that they are forced to register with it and abide by its code of conduct and disciplinary proceedings. Its inception was meant to bolster the professionalism of teaching, boosting public confidence and trust in teachers. Instead, it has had the effect of providing a media focus for the public’s diminishing trust in the teaching profession as cases of misconduct and incompetence are held in public over protracted periods resulting in the humiliation of those involved.

This year’s GTC annual report reveals that the council heard 169 cases of misconduct or incompetence over the last year, of which 83 resulted in either suspension or prohibition from re-entering the profession and 49 resulted in a reprimand. The council admitted that it had failed to reach its target of 202 cases last year, but celebrated the reduction in the average time for hearing a case from 59 to 52 weeks (4).

Even if you accept the GTCs role as judge and jury over cases of professional misconduct and incompetence, the fact that teachers can be held in limbo for a year on average over a particular charge made against them is absurd. In light of this, teachers are to be allowed to accept a judgement against them rather than having to go through the ordeal of a GTC hearing. But as John Davies, a former headteacher in Kent, said: ‘When you find yourself up before the GTC, you might not be in any state to make a decision about admitting the allegations against you’, he said. ‘You are not necessarily in a good state of mind to defend yourself, and you might opt to admit something just to get it over with and get on with your life.’ (5) Davies was exonerated after a case lasting two years was brought before the GTC.

Even considering the length of cases brought to the GTC does not give the full picture, as even more cases remain unheard. In 2008, there were 152 hearings and 244 cases pending (6). Resembling the legal system of a tin-pot dictatorship, this whole system has engendered little or no confidence amongst teachers and has certainly done nothing to improve the reputation of the profession. The GTC allows members of the public to make complaints directly to the council about teachers even though the majority of complaints are the result of internal disciplinary cases in schools. Between 2007 and 2008, the annual number of complaints from the public doubled from 46 to 92 (7).

But this is exactly the result of encouraging the kind of petty accountability procedures the new code of conduct represents. As Chris Keates put it, the code is ‘littered with pious statements, conflicts with contractual provisions and intrudes into private lives’ (8). Teachers are already held to account under the massively bureaucratic performance review system which governs their ability to earn pay increases. Competency procedures are well established in schools to both discipline and hopefully rebuild the careers of teachers who fall short of basic standards. The government is even considering licensing teachers over a five-year period after which the teachers will need to be reviewed in order to regain their license (9). There is seemingly no end to the regulations and codification of teachers’ professional conduct.

What valuable purpose the GTC serves within this is not at all apparent. The attempt by the council to start telling teachers what is ‘reasonable behaviour’ within a teacher’s personal life is a step too far. The NASUWT has collected over 10,000 signatures against the new code of conduct. This seems to be a far more representative collective voice than that of the GTC and I am completely with them in telling the GTC to scrap its code of conduct and keep its nose out of teachers’ personal lives.

David Perks is head of physics at Graveney School, London. He is the co-author of What is Science Education For?. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

David Perks wanted to expel middle-managers from schools. He argued that education is now a sideshow in British schools and resisted demands to teach ‘thinking skills’. Joanna Williams wrote about teachers, targets and theatre trips. Or read more at spiked issue Education.

(1) Code of Conduct and Practice for Registered Teachers, GTC

(2) Teachers protest against new code of conduct ‘that will stop drinking at weekends’, Daily Telegraph, 4 September 2009

(3) Teachers campaign against code of conduct, Guardian, 2 September 2009

(4) GTC annual report to 31 March 2009

(5) Fast-track sentences for teachers who admit guilt, TES, 3 October 2008

(6) Fast-track sentences for teachers who admit guilt, TES, 3 October 2008

(7) Fast-track sentences for teachers who admit guilt, TES, 3 October 2008

(8) Teachers protest against new code of conduct ‘that will stop drinking at weekends’, Daily Telegraph, 4 September 2009

(9) Ed Balls: Teachers to be ‘licensed’ to work in schools, Daily Telegraph, 1 July 2009

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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