Professional Standards: Threats and Possibilities

Tom Alegounarias

While the world needs an effective teaching profession more than ever before, the essential elements of teaching’s professional standing are being discarded in key jurisdictions around the world.

In his significant November 2000 Report for the NSW government on the quality of teaching, Quality Matters, Dr Gregor Ramsey dubbed teaching the first profession, the profession of professions.

He noted that teaching is the professional practice most necessary for building other professions. All others, doctors, dentists, actuaries, pass through our hands on their way to professional status.

Dr Ramsey’s work led to the establishment of the NSW Institute of Teachers and a Professional Standards Framework, which was ultimately adapted and adopted to become the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) Australian Professional Standards for Teachers.

The standards are a reference point for determining professional standing. In exercising consistent judgement against these high standards teachers are issuing an assurance to the community that systems are in place for every student to be taught by a high-quality teacher. In many places around the world, the policy dynamic for quality teaching is heading in the opposite direction.

In these places there is an emphasis on deregulating qualifications and aligning the right to be called a teacher directly and simply with employment status.

In 2010, England abolished its General Teaching Council. If you Google “unqualified teacher England”, you will see endless pages of advertisements placed by schools.

In the US, the GFC caused a reversal of previous gains in requiring minimum qualifications for teaching in many states.

There is increasing awareness among governments of the importance of education to a jurisdiction’s relative competitiveness and prosperity.

In a global economy with easily shifting capital flows, the relative advantage of developed economies is in the quality of the “human capital” that might attract services and creative industry investment. This makes the quality of education a primary social and economic policy lever. The single most direct policy lever for improving educational attainment is teaching.

It is not possible to have a profession without common and agreed standards of practice. Not necessarily as prescriptions, but as bases for connecting judgments and therefore being in professional practice.

Those most opposed to standards for teachers argued exactly that, teaching was not a profession. It was either an ethical vocation or a form of paid public exposition.

The contest of ideas on how to promote teaching is not over, including in Australia, and arguments made against Professional Standards have not been defeated.

The policy reversals for the teaching standards project in some important jurisdictions is best understood as a deregulatory public policy approach being applied to teaching, rather than an evolution of educational policy thinking. What is at stake is the status of teaching as a profession.

Tom Alegounarias is the Chair of the NSW Education Standards Authority.

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