Teachers Rule OK

By Willis, Richard | History Today, September 2000 | Go to article overview
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Teachers Rule OK


Willis, Richard, History Today


Richard Willis describes the long struggle to get teachers their own professional organisation.

THE CAMPAIGN for the self-government of teachers in England and Wales was initiated in the mid-nineteenth century. The aim was to establish a professional body for teachers on the lines of the General Medical Council and the Law Society, to drive out the unqualified and to protect children against untrustworthy teachers. In recent years the government has responded, and the General Teaching Council begins work this month. This promises to give teachers important powers over registration and professional conduct as well as the duty to represent the interests of the teaching profession. Considering previous attempts by teachers to secure professional autonomy, however, the Council's path ahead could well be fraught with conflict.

The earliest institution to press for a teachers' council and register was the College of Preceptors. This society, founded by private teachers in Bloomsbury in 1846, attempted to copy those initiatives in the medical and legal professions designed to exclude the unqualified from practising. However, the movement for teachers' registration experienced special complications. The schoolmasters, satirically portrayed by Dickens, Thackeray and Charlotte Bronte, were often the subject of much criticism. As one Victorian commentator put it, `The rascality of Squeers, the brutality of Creakle, and the pretentiousness of Dr Blimber had their counterparts in actual life'. Such teachers were shown as failures from other occupations who had turned to schooling solely for personal profit in the same way as the unemployed might have taken to farming or trade. Their chief object seemed to be to make money in a system disparagingly called `private adventure schooling'.

There were of course other classes of teachers. Whilst the status of the private educators was clearly low, elementary teachers ranked at the bottom of the social pyramid and those masters responsible for the education of the higher classes were intent on preserving their position in society. The College looked to the progress achieved in other professions and the impact of the Medical Registration Act of 1858 became crucial. This Act affected a profession that, before the legislation was enacted, was essentially a coherent and organised force. At that time there was scarcely a member of the medical profession without a certificate from the College of Physicians, the College of Surgeons, the Society of Apothecaries or a medical degree. There is little doubt that this cohesion facilitated the introduction of the Act of 1858. By contrast, few teachers, apart from the university graduates, possessed certificates of competence: only the certificated elementary teachers, and a minority of private teachers with awards from the College of Preceptors.

The early interest led to the formation of the Scholastic Registration Association, which invited support from all teachers. The Association's inclusion of the government-sponsored elementary teachers began to encourage those who saw that a unified body of teachers was a prerequisite for full-scale registration. Cooperation was, however, short-lived. There ensued a bitter conflict between the working-class elementary teachers, backed by the National Union of Teachers (NUT), and the private teachers, represented by the College of Preceptors. The groupings clashed in Parliament when debates accompanied the unsuccessful passage of a series of registration bills. The issue was referred to a Select Committee in 1891, but stalemate ensued.

In 1895 the Royal Commission on Secondary Education favoured a register for both elementary and secondary teachers. The Board of Education Act 1899 provided for the creation of a Consultative Committee charged with the framing of regulations for a register. But the intransigence of Robert Morant, Permanent Secretary of the Board of Education, meant that it was not until 1902 that the first Teachers' Registration Council was introduced.

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