Professions have standards for entry, early career formation and on-going practice that are set by members and leaders of that profession rather than through legislation or government policy. These standards are set drawing on an agreed body of knowledge and/or principles, again agreed and maintained by members of the profession. They are framed with reference to a code of conduct which will include ethical considerations. The whole is overseen by a professional body formed of members of the profession and governed by experienced and expert members, elected by and answerable to the membership. In the UK these bodies usually have a legal status conferred by grant of a Royal Charter.
The teaching profession first set up a chartered professional body to oversee teaching in the 1840s. Unlike many other professions, where membership of such bodies is an unquestioned and valued part of professional identity, The College of Preceptors (later Teachers) never quite achieved that central status. It had some success over the centuries in fostering innovation and raising standards; it established one of the first training colleges for teachers at a time when the value or need for such training was in doubt. However its charter fell short of the authority of those in other professions and the power to set vital standards for entry or progression stayed firmly in the hands of policy makers, not expert practitioners. After nearly 200 years, all this may be about to change.
On the 8th June 2016 the Privy Council granted a supplemental charter to the College of Teachers. This marks a major milestone in the professionalisation of teaching as it grants the power to create a true Chartered Status for teachers. Chartered status is a mark of excellence in a profession, granted to practitioners who have achieved a recognised level of expertise and who continue to practise at that level. Perhaps the most important aspect of this change is that the decisions on how that level is set and how fellow professionals are deemed to have reached it, will be made by the members of that profession. Not by politicians, or civil servants or by other experts who take a view on what the profession should or could do, but by working professionals who are trusted to determine what true expertise looks like in their sphere of activity. Moreover, the benchmark for excellence is set with reference to the best possible outcomes for those the profession serves. So Chartered Teacher status will be set and awarded by fellow teachers, through the powers granted to their own professional College, owned and governed by its members. It will recognise those who make a difference.
So given the huge potential this creates for teachers and teaching, how to proceed in a practice as varied and complex as teaching? Clearly there is no singular ‘right way’ to teach. Teaching is a complex and nuanced activity, constantly influenced by context and content, moderated through the thousands of interactions between teacher and taught. Against this backdrop, can there be a meaningful professional status that carries weight and recognises genuine expertise? Moreover, how can working towards such a status support teacher development and offer practical support in the classroom, and yet avoid becoming another unwelcome administrative burden?
Clearly if the Chartered College of Teaching is to add power to the teaching profession it must rise to the challenge of creating a professional community of teachers that supports and develops its members, offering real benefits and professional recognition. After many years of consultation, a model is emerging based on the appetite for a knowledge-sharing professional community, and the development of shared professional principles.
Developing professional knowledge
Teaching is a complex practice, involving as Ted Wragg observed, as many as 1000 individual interactions by the teacher over a typical school day. If there was one, reliable, repeatable, universal method guaranteed to produce effective learning then it would have been defined and replicated by now. In place of the one size fits all model, there is a nuanced web of practices that vary depending on the context. Teaching and learning are social and cultural practices which are shaped by who is learning, what, where and when. That said, this does not justify an entirely organic approach where the decisions made on curriculum, pedagogy, behaviour and all the other elements of practice are entirely based on opinion and anecdote. Instead, as CPRT argues, there is a need for teachers to develop a command of a repertoire of knowledge, skills and strategies.
What might a body of shared professional knowledge look like? One option could be to follow a highly diversified approach, similar to that taken by the National Board for Professional Standards in Teaching in the US. Over a six year period they developed highly specific standards for a range of subjects in different phases. This raises issues of practicality as well as value – the process of developing and maintaining such standards is complex, time-consuming and costly. Setting up a similar model in the UK was estimated by McKinsey to need £30 million of funding. Moreover the adoption remains far from universal, even after 27 years, the number of teachers taking up the US NBPST standards and seeking accreditation against them is a small percentage of the profession.
Another option is to seek to distil the essence of sound and effective practice in teaching. This model, premised loosely on the Australian teaching standards, focuses on the kind of teacher you are and the culture in which you work. This model is potentially more powerful and more sustainable. Building on this it is possible to codify a common epistemology for teaching – how you know being as important as what you know. Is teaching practice sufficiently analytical? When an intervention or innovation is planned, is there engagement with a relevant evidence base (gathered within and beyond the school) to inform the design? Are the results monitored and evaluated through meaningful collection and examination of the evidence of development of learning? These ideas are encapsulated in the CPR Final Report’s recommendations on pedagogy which propose that:
We need now to move to a position where research-grounded teaching repertoires and principles are introduced through initial training and refined and extended through experience and CPD, and teachers acquire as much command of the evidence and principles which underpin the repertoires as they do of the skills needed in their use.
The transformed College offers an opportunity for the teaching profession to come together and answer these questions for itself, to take ownership of the professional principles that should guide practice and push back against fads and fashions that wash over schools in a constant stream. The College offers a rallying point, under the auspices of a Royal Charter, for teachers to found a new bastion of professionalism.
Angela McFarlane is former Professor of Education at Bristol University, and former Chief Executive and Registrar of the College of Teachers.
For further discussion about the College of Teaching read this article published in Education Today (June 2016)