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Social work lessons for a future 'Govian' College of Teaching

Michael Gove has had a stupendously busy month, fairly cavorting his way over the top of one educational sacred cow after another. The Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts this week went so far as to describe him as “a confident piece of work, a minister in his pomp”.

From overhauling exams to increasing the length of the school day, Gove’s reforming zeal proffered yet another idea yesterday when the Secretary of State called for the establishment of a Royal College of Teaching, which, he told us, would be modelled on eponymous equivalents for surgeons or paediatricians. Such a body would be responsible for “identifying, exemplifying and defining best practice in the teaching profession”.

Tellingly, however, Mr Gove said such a college would also be a voice for the profession in competition with unions, which he said were dominated by a "tiny, but vocal, group of militant activists".

In a desperate bid to move the debate away from the hostile and acrimonious one currently found between the Department for Education (DfE) and the NUT and NASUWT he said that the insurance and legal protection offered by trade unions could now be done by various smaller organisations “without a political agenda”. Equally, he said in his speech yesterday, the role the unions have played “as a voice for the profession can also now be done better by an alternative organisation”.

Please note though that while he is a fan of a college for education, Michael Gove, is not, absolutely not, the man behind such a scheme. “The creation of a Royal College is not DfE policy – on the contrary, I’ve had nothing whatever to do with it – which is why it’s such a good idea.”

Leaving aside how you define “on the contrary” and how Mr Gove defines the “growing consensus” apparently demanding such a development, this notion of what is in the best interests of teachers is one with which we in social work are now very familiar. And in fact rather than imitating those famous, august brands, the Royal College of Surgeons or the Royal College of Paediatricians, Mr Gove’s vision is likely to owe more to the altogether more prosaic College of Social Work.

The origins of the Royal College of Surgeons lie somewhere around the fourteenth century, with disputes between surgeons and barber surgeons helping to define the body we recognise today. Political as well as professional differences undoubtedly shaped its eventual form but the fact it was founded by surgeons in a bid to do something related to what its website today describes as ‘enabling surgeons to achieve and maintain the highest standards of surgical practice and patient care’ is not in dispute.

The origins of the College of Social Work, on the other hand, lay more in a modern day political land-grab, a turf war led as much by ministers and employers as by social workers. It certainly emerged from the view of many within the social work profession that something more was needed to help raise practice standards but its development has taken it in a direction that the Education Secretary must surely have considered in arriving at his latest conclusion.

While Mr Gove has been blasted by his former junior minister Tim Loughton for ignoring the issue of child protection – the scorned Tory MP described a “downgrading of the priority” in a withering attack in January – he is, let it not be forgotten, the cabinet minister with whom the social work buck ultimately comes to a halt.

As such, Mr Gove will have noted how ‘seed funding’ from the public purse was used to get the College of Social Work off the ground and how sums of money continue to flow from the public purse to aid this organisation even though it has been established as an independent charity and is recruiting members. He will probably know too that the new Chair of the College of Social Work, Jo Cleary, has been perfectly open in her view that she expects the taxpayer to continue to pick up the tab in the form of an on-going subsidy for some years to come.

Yet this presents a price not just for the taxpayer but for the College of Social Work too, with its income, as well as its origins, not so much organic as cultured in a DfE Petri dish.

So it would be for an artificially hewn teaching college, the independence of which Mr Gove, or a successor in his mould, would own – a body so independent that it will eschew politics altogether, if only that were possible.

Imagine the scene when a future Government reveals plans to halve teacher pay. The College of Teaching, under pressure from the media to comment, winds into action, clear that this may not be the very best idea it’s ever heard to raise standards but just a little concerned about how it might sound in Whitehall if it bites the hand that feeds.

The facts won’t get in the way of a good strapline, however. Away from education we are already familiar hear that mantra, The Voice of Social Work, coupled with another refrain, that the College of Social Work is ‘independent’ and ‘led by and accountable to social workers’. It’s the same dubious rhetoric teachers can expect to hear in years to come if the Govian utopia comes to pass.

While some teachers will join this college, the vast majority won’t, since unlike the Royal College of Surgeons it won’t have been stitched by their own deft hands, but instead concocted by politicians using a few selected figures from education to sponsor its legitimacy.

The independence will be spurious. As such, few will be immediately lured from the unions in which they may not always have complete faith but who they can at least anticipate will speak without fear.

When teachers don’t migrate in their droves, when they aren’t tempted by taxpayer subsidised membership fees that hugely undercut those of the NUT and others, ministers – doubtless supported by a huge swathe of headteachers and other school leaders enthused by the idea of a new organisation for teachers but not led by teachers, acquiescing at more or less every turn and no longer hampering the march of progress and modernisation – then they will try a different approach.

Teachers will be ‘encouraged’ by their heads and by their governing bodies to join the new college; it will form an important part of their professional development; they will only be able to access certain training resources if members; and there will even be efforts to have all teachers automatically enrolled as College members by schools and local authorities buying up bulk membership packages.

Anything and everything will be employed to make sure that teachers get the representation they deserve. Or what Michael Gove fancies teachers deserve anyway.

Ultimately, however, it won’t matter if the College of Teaching has many, or any, members. When ministers need to consult ‘the teaching profession’ it will have a ready-made friend (mirror mirror on the wall ...) to whom it can turn and ask an ‘opinion’ or allocate a task – a job that will come with a further annual payment to the cash hungry sort-of quango and that won’t be mishandled or misunderstood; it will be done and largely as ministers wanted. Nothing messy, and the status quo intact.

Michael Gove may have a point about school holidays, they can go on a bit, and he might even have a case about the extent to which teachers unions can resist any and all innovations.

But when a man with a powerful appetite for pursuing the most extreme education agenda seen in more than a generation starts telling teachers about the voice they shouldn’t have, and the voice they ought to have, it’s time to draw a line.

Social workers are already being told they have a new voice but very few of them recognise what that voice is saying.

It is up to teachers to choose their own voices and leaders, just as it should be for social workers – not have them chosen by government or vested interests too close to government to speak as they find.

Joe Devo is Head of Communications for the British Association of Social Workers