The National College for Teaching and Leadership was born from a rushed decision by a deeply political secretary of state to abolish the General Teaching Council for England in March 2012. Given its recent failures there may be voices calling for the NCTL to be culled in turn. I would resist these calls.
The faults of the NCTL are a product of a failure to reform the GTCE and the rush to create a new system of teacher regulation from scratch. To abolish it and replace it would be to repeat history and there is no reason to believe the end result would be any better. Instead the Department for Education should consult and then reform, and aim to improve the way cases are managed and, in turn, hopefully improve the way the profession is regarded by the general public.
The reforms I would urge upon whomever inherits the DfE are twofold: structural and operational.
Structural means the need for a register of teachers.
The best part of the NCTL is its panels and their approach to cases. These panels are not mentioned in the Education Act but were created by subsequent regulations. They may be an afterthought but they are the crown jewels in what was otherwise an extraordinary system, putting an elected politician in a position to determine the fate of professional people. Their importance is recognised by the department and every published decision is published under the declaration that ‘the secretary of state does not make these decisions herself. They are made by a senior official on the recommendation of an independent panel.’
Time and again panels have demonstrated themselves to be astute judges of fact. They make genuinely independent decisions about the strength of each case and are not swayed by the views of those who referred whichever unfortunate teacher for their consideration. They have demonstrated independence of thought and have made recommendations that allow good teachers to stay in the profession despite significant wrongdoing. They behave as if the watching public are well informed and have a good understanding of what’s at stake in a case, rather than merely feeding a public desire that those who err should be punished.
That said, they need a graded set of sanctions to allow them to make more nuanced recommendations to the secretary of state. The regulators of teachers in Scotland and Wales can impose warnings, conditions or periods of suspension on errant teachers. It is time the English regulator took up these tools again.
Unfortunately the NCTL does not regulate qualified and registered teachers in the manner that other British teacher regulators do. It is left without a register, which makes a nuanced response to wrongdoing difficult. Without a register it is hard to suspend someone from the register, or record conditions or a warning. Holding a register allows for details of a reprimand, conditions of practice or a suspension to be recorded against a registrant.
Reintroducing a register would have other benefits. Being registered is part and parcel of being a professional and would bring teachers back into that fold. A register allows the composition of the profession to be understood. A register would also act as a valuable resource for those wishing to understand problems of teacher recruitment and retention.
Operational means creating an internal legal team.
The NCTL currently relies upon externally appointed lawyers to investigate, prepare and present its cases. The lack of a legal team at its heart is puzzling. Most regulators opt for a mix, with external lawyers and internal lawyers working together to complement each other. Internal lawyers can act as a conscience and can also hold external lawyers to account for the quality of their work, rather than simply measuring them against whatever metrics are demanded by the key performance indicators written into the contract.
A good legal team with a solid understanding of the landscape of education would ensure that the external providers rapidly acquired the expertise necessary to do an effective and fair job.