Of all professions, teaching is uniquely vulnerable to externally-imposed change. While high-profile scandals in other professions lead to enquiries and incremental change, teaching is the subject of increasingly prescriptive reform.
With a general election 18 months away, the political parties will begin to jockey for a position in education policy. Each will identify their prioirty areas of reform – curriculum, qualifications, teaching in the early years, literacy teaching, school-funding reform – and bring forward ideas for change.
Each will attack the record of the others. Each will identify areas where fundamental change is needed to reverse the mistakes of the past. Each will lay claim to the successes. Each will produce “evidence” to support their views.
As ever, the arguments will focus on whose version of changing the system is the more compelling. Meanwhile, the assumption that centrally-driven reform is the key to higher standards will largely go unchallenged.
But we should challenge it because the aim of education reform is that more teachers should succeed with more children in the future than in the past. The key to improving educational standards is the growth of human capital – in particular, increasing the quality, knowledge and skills of teachers and leaders in schools.
But what factors will achieve this? Efforts to make teaching a more attractive profession and to improve the calibre of new entrants will always be important. The development of teachers in the years immediately following qualification is an area of national weakness, and an important one. The development of leaders and managers – particularly those moving into management for the first time – is another.
I could go on, but what links these factors is that they are largely professional. They are concerned with improving practice rather than changing structures.
Our political system is far better at structural change than improvement of practice. This is unsurprising; while structural levers are large and the resulting change is obvious, improving practice is long-term and difficult to influence effectively from the centre. But the connection of the structural levers to better outcomes can be weak.
The way to improve education in this country now is through focused, evidence-based attention to improving professional practice. The way for the profession to strengthen its resilience to externally-imposed change is to take greater ownership of this task.
These are two reasons why the time is now right for the new Royal College of Teaching. Teaching needs an independent, professional, standards-setting body owned by the profession.
As in most other professional bodies, the royal college will need to take charge of the entry standards, as well as the expectations for professional training for new entrants and early professional development. In many professions, the early years of working include a focused drive to achieve chartered or fellow status through gaining appropriate experience and undergoing suitable training. The royal college will create a similar expectation in teaching.
At the same time, the college will connect evidence and practice more than ever before. The college can emulate the Royal College of Surgeons in bringing together leading practitioners and researchers to identify research problems that really matter to teachers, disseminate evidence and use it to define professional standards.
A recent consultation on the proposals for a royal college published by a self-elected group received more replies than many government consultations and a more overwhelmingly positive response than any government consultation is ever likely to. The task now is to refine the proposals in the light of the responses and then look to move into implementation.
It is an idea whose time has clearly come. In ten years from now, as we contemplate the run-in to the 2025 general election, we can expect a more resilient teaching profession in which the royal college is a significant voice in setting the terms of political debate.
Jon Coles is chief executive of United Learning, a group of academies and independent schools.