Mark Blois explores plans for a new code of conduct for the General Teaching Council for England GTCE

The General Teaching Council for England (GTCE) has announced that it intends to implement a new code of conduct and practice for teachers in December 2009. This has been met with criticism from unions who see it as an infringement of the private lives of teachers. In this article Mark Blois looks at whether the new code will lead to the ‘Big Brother’ scenario feared by some teachers.

What is the GTCE?

The General Teaching Council for England (GTCE) is a body independent from government that is responsible for regulating the teaching profession to protect both employers and the public. The council’s duty to regulate teachers is set out in the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998. This act granted the council the power to lay down a code of practice setting out the standards of conduct and practice expected of teachers. The existing code, dating from 2004, does not replace teachers’ statutory duties and contractual employment obligations but is designed to sit alongside them.

Why is the code being updated?
The primary focus of the existing code has been promoting high standards and ensuring minimum standards are met. However, last year the GTCE announced that it would be updating the code to represent the changing context and nature of the teaching profession. The stated aim was to ensure that teachers considered their place in society and their responsibility to act as role models.

What does the new draft code say?
The draft code outlines eight key principles of conduct and practice that registered teachers are expected to comply with. They are:

1. to place the wellbeing, development and progress of children and young people at the heart of their professional practice2. to reflect on their own teaching to ensure that it meets the high standards required to help children achieve their full potential3. to strive to awaken a passion for learning and achievement among children and young people and equip them with the skills to become lifelong learners4. to promote equality and diversity5. to take proactive steps to establish partnerships with parents and carers6. to work as part of a whole-school team7. to cooperate with other professional colleagues who have a role in enabling children and young people to thrive and succeed

8. to demonstrate high standards of honesty and integrity; and to uphold public trust and confidence in the teaching profession.

Why has the new code attracted so much media attention?
Understandably, principle eight has been the most controversial. In a move that reflects the GTCE’s intention to create role models, the code makes clear that disciplinary action can be taken against teachers for actions outside school hours. Teachers’ unions have expressed concern that the new code, if implemented in its current form, will enable teachers’ private lives to become the subject of scrutiny by the GTCE and allow the council to investigate teachers’ conduct outside of work.

The existing code already grants the GTCE the power to suspend or bar teachers for misconduct. However, although local authorities, schools and the police are required to make a referral when a member of staff is dismissed for misconduct, cautioned or convicted, the GTCE has struggled to enforce this. Of the 500,000 teachers registered with the GTCE, last year there were only 506 referrals. Of these, only 222 were for misconduct and 55 of those were for conduct outside of school.

The existing code states that in cases of professional misconduct, disciplinary tribunals would consider whether the teacher in question was guilty of conduct that fell short of the standard expected of a registered teacher. The draft code makes explicit that not only that there is an expected standard, but that it is directly linked to a teacher’s responsibility to uphold public trust and confidence in the profession.

By linking the standards of conduct with the eight principles, the draft code endeavours to clarify the confusion about how teachers’ actions outside the classroom can constitute conduct serious enough to warrant a referral to the GTCE.

Is the controversy justified?
The wording of the draft code does give the GTCE the power to consider whether a course of conduct outside school is relevant to a teacher’s registration, but it also makes clear that the key question is whether the conduct could be said to have an impact on public confidence in the profession. Referrals can still be made by the police, employers and the public, but in most cases, as with the existing code, the alleged misconduct will only be considered by the GTCE where it is serious enough for the teacher to have been dismissed by their employer. The GTCE has also been quick to highlight that there will be no change in the criteria it uses in disciplinary matters.

In practice, very little has actually changed. The main effect of the eight principles is to tie in current practices and procedures with a coherently structured code that accurately reflects expectation of teachers. Rather than seeking to pry into the private lives of teachers, the draft code aims to provide a hallmark for the profession in much the same way as other professions such medicine and the law.

Do the eight principles help?
Yes, to the extent that they now expressly set out the standards that the GTCE has been applying for years via its procedures for disciplinary hearings. The overall goal is far from draconian − the draft code seeks only to ensure that teachers are aware of the standard of conduct and professionalism expected of them, both in and out of the classroom, and for parents and pupils to understand what is to be expected from teachers.

What happens next?The consultation period ended on 27 February 2009. The council will now review the responses before deciding whether to amend the draft code. The final code will be published later this year.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in April 2009

About the author: Mark Blois is a partner at Browne Jacobson solicitors.