Charlotte Leslie is a member of the Health Select Committee and MP for Bristol North West. She is the Spectator’s Backbencher of the Year
“…Now F-off!” cries Brian, in Monty Python’s brilliant (and not the slightest bit blasphemous) film. Silence. The clamouring crowd who have pursued Brian under the unfortunate impression he is the Messiah shrink back, nonplussed for a second, Then John Cleese eagerly pipes up”: “How shall we F-off, oh Lord?” Brian crumples in defeated exasperation.
It often seems that politicians are the John Cleese to the public’s Brian. The more the public tell us to get our mucky mitts out of their lives, the more we spend time, energy and public money in asking and working out ‘how’.
Unfortunately, politicians “f-ing’ off” is not quite as simple as getting rid of a gourd-waving, Messiah-seeking crowd. There is a role that politicians are expected to perform. People expect us to protect and defend our nation and be at least partly accountable for the well-being of its citizens. This is why, in public services like health and education, the notion of just how politicians can ‘F-off’ is tricky.
The last round of health reforms was intended to get politicians to ‘F-off’ out of the health service. Realising this excellent ambition has been complex. NHS England will have to prove itself preferable and more immune to its own interests than Whitehall. But if health has a problem with political interference, doctors can at least breathe a sigh of relief that politicians are not telling them how to perform medical procedures.
Teachers are not so lucky. They have long bemoaned the State’s invasion of the classroom, feeling relentlessly buffeted by endless winds of political change that democracy tends to bring. But politicians have long wrestled with how they can ‘F-off’ out of education, concerned that if they do, interests that are not the pupils’ will gain sway.
This is where the idea of a Royal College of Teaching comes in – excellently described on this site recently by Adrian Hilton. It is an idea on which I have been working alongside the Princes Teaching Institute’s Independent Commission since 2012, and last year a group of which I am a member published a booklet exploring the idea, bringing together an almost unprecedented consensus in education. This consensus may be an indication that so many problems in the teaching profession seem to come down to a massive ‘Royal College shaped hole’ in the educational landscape.
First, why are politicians so reluctant to let go of the educational reins? It is partly because the only major voices on the block are that of the unions. Let me repeat: unions are valuable. They have a vital role in protecting the interests of their workforce. It is only when the interests of the workforce are the only major voice in the education landscape that this asymmetry tempts politicians to grip harder on their control. A balance of voices is needed.
In medicine, the voice of the doctors’ union, the BMA, is balanced by the voices of the Royal Colleges. Some Royal Colleges are unfortunately split in incorporating both union and college function, but those that have a sole Royal College function, such as the Royal College of Surgeons or Physicians, are designed only to improve professional standards for the benefit of the patient. Separate Royal College and union roles are complementary: If teaching had a rigorously evidence-based voice for professional excellence, putting the pupil, not the practitioner first, this could only raise the status of the teaching profession in the eyes of politicians and the public. This would in turn lend weight to union’s arguments for good pay and conditions.
Second: the constant challenge to persuade more of our best and brightest to choose teaching. Teach First has made great steps forward, but it is not enough. A student considering medicine can expect their professional development to accelerate once they have qualified. A student considering teaching, can expect that once they have qualified, Continuing Professional Development (CPD) may simply be a luxury fitted in around maintaining class-discipline, adapting to new policies and marking piles of homework. Not quite the same professional incentive. For many, the only route for development takes them out of the classroom, and into leadership and management. This may be right for some, but not for all. A Royal College of Teaching could provide a classroom-based professional development ladder and an expectation that this is core to being a teacher.
Third, if a rigorously evidence-driven, professional Royal College of voluntary membership gained strength, credibility and popularity over the years, it could then begin to bring elements such as curriculum design out of the hands of civil servants and politicians, and back to the real experts.
All this could only happen if the Royal College demonstrated its worth. With voluntary membership, the College would rise or fall according to its effectiveness: If schools were more likely to employ a member of the Royal College because members exhibited obvious strengths over others, teachers would pay the membership fees. If membership wasn’t worth it, teachers wouldn’t waste their money.
The whole point is that a politician like me can have no part in setting up such a college: it must be professionally led. But we can facilitate empowered, motivated professionals. Only when the teaching profession comes together to be more than the sum of its parts can it start to push back against the tide of the state – and be not only an effective force for getting politicians to ‘F-off’ out of education, but ultimately, and more importantly, in delivering an ever better education for our children.
P.S: For more views from across the educational spectrum on the merits of a Royal College of Teaching, see the publication “Towards a Royal College of Teaching” and please feed back your thoughts. If you are a class-room teacher and are interested in writing an essay on the subject for potential publication, get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org