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FRONT LINE FIRST-EDUCATION

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George Bernard Shaw suggested a profession is a conspiracy against the laity. If that were the case, then surely a ...
George Bernard Shaw suggested a profession is a conspiracy against the laity. If that were the case, then surely a meeting of seven professions designed to agree a joint approach to anything would be regarded as rather sinister.

But at last month's unprecedented meeting of representatives of council chief executives, directors of education, social services, finance, law and personnel and of chief constables, the focus was the professions themselves and their response to the challenge to public services from prime minister Tony Blair to 'reform or bust'.

We agreed that, whatever the strengths of the services we are responsible for, they are not good enough, and fall short of the best in Europe in some important respects. Transformation requires more than ambition and investment, vital though they are. Transformation requires professionalism.

I am not, of course, suggesting a return to the bad old days when the professionals knew what was good for us, and we, the clients, were compliant and grateful.

Over the past four years the government has assisted in the strengthening and harnessing of professionalism in the education service in some very positive ways.

It has established the General Teaching Council with a remit for professional standards; it has invested heavily in the professional development of teachers, introduced a performance management system and has begun to take teachers' working environment seriously.

But the government has inhibited the development of professionalism by stifling debate on pedagogy, and succumbing to the temptation of excessive prescription. The relationship between central and local government, characterised by tight prescription, multiple-funding streams and highly-detailed planning requirements, itself needs transformation

Professionalism is central to the transformation of public services because it provides the human connection between the ambitions of governments and the experience of the clients and citizens.

Some serious obligations are involved in 21st-century professionalism:

- A mastery of an established body of knowledge and skills

- An individual commitment to continuous improvement

- Acceptance of a collective responsibility for standards

- An ethically-based commitment to the needs and interests of the client

- A readiness to collaborate with those who work in other professions where such cooperation is in the interest of the client.

The transformation sought by the government depends on a combination of ambitious aspirations, significant new investment and genuine professionalism.

We need a more mature relationship in which the aims and aspirations of central government are harnessed to the professionalism, local knowledge and commitment of public servants.

Public criticism and challenge, relatively poor working conditions and constantly changing expectations have significantly reduced the professional self-confidence of many in the public sector, not least teachers and education officers.

The messages have been mixed. Speeches about dedication and skill can be quickly undermined by assertions about the unquestioned superiority of the private sector.

The debate about the involvement of the private sector in the provision of public services must be kept in its place - it is a debate about means, not ends. Whichever organisations are responsible for the management of public services, it is people who make the difference.

Andrew Baxter

President, Society of Education Officers

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