A Licence to Teach

| Jan 14, 2014

In 2009 I was working in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit as a senior education adviser. My role was to provide policy expertise on behalf of No 10 across the education space, which included being embedded in departments to support them on major areas of work. I spent a decent chunk of 2008 and 2009 sitting in DCSF, as was, working on various policies, including a lot of work on teacher quality.

At the time, there was a huge amount of thinking going on in the medical profession around the concept of revalidation – that doctors needed to be reassessed regularly throughout their careers to ensure that they were up to speed with the latest research and clinical practice – which I felt was analogous to what we wanted teachers to have. Similarly, many professions including accountancy and law required their members to undertake a minimum level of CPD every year in order to maintain their professional standing – which was also an attractive proposition. For teaching to become a respected profession, I felt that there was a strong argument for creating an external badge of quality – largely profession led – which indicated an ongoing commitment to professional development and mastery of practice, that went beyond the (often pretty superficial) performance management arrangements that took place in schools on an annual basis.

Hence the proposals, which were announced in the 21st Century Schools White Paper (paragraphs 6.21 to 6.24), committing the government to explore a 5 year ‘Licence to Teach’. The model as set out in the White Paper had an external body (in our case the GTC) validating the licenses, with an emphasis on teachers demonstrating mastery of professional practice over multiple years. Intriguingly, there was also a mooted commitment to a CPD entitlement sitting alongside this – which was a major demand in the negotiating line of what was at that time called the social partners (the various trade unions who met regularly with the government, initially to discuss pay and workforce issues but which in practice became a forum for broader discussion on any major new policy proposals).

Re-reading the White Paper, I am reminded how cautious the proposals were – the text is full of phrases like “our intention is…”, “we envisage beginning roll out…”, and “We will develop detailed proposals and consult widely with the profession on these arrangements”. Nevertheless from the No 10 side at least, our intention was clear. What also became clear rapidly was the steadfast opposition of much of the unions to this move, which in time led to a formal NUT campaign against the proposals (I still have the badge). When combined with the scepticism of Michael Gove, and the strong likelihood that the Bill to put much of this into practice would need to be negotiated with the Opposition because of the ‘wash up’ period in Parliament just before the election, the Government decided to drop the proposal. And there it lay, in the (overflowing) dustbin of White Paper proposals that never went anywhere, destined never to be remembered other than by people like me. Until Tristram Hunt’s announcement in his interview with the Times…

My view on the general principle of a Licence to Teach has changed slightly over the past 4 and a half years. I am now more sceptical of the efficacy of many versions of a licence – the danger of surface compliance seems to me quite high if it is simply left up to Heads to certify their staff. Conversely, I am also nervous about the level of bureaucracy required if there will be a central body authorising and approving licences – on a rolling five year basis just shy of 100,000 teachers will need to be revalidated every year, which is no small task (and which in reality would require teachers to pay an annual fee to the regulator for the privilege of being licensed).

Nevertheless, on balance, I can still see the attraction of a well designed licence process. Crucially, I support it as part of a wider reassessment of teacher pay, standards, and an external body conferring professional status – all of which would help to move the teaching profession to one which is less under the control or at the behest of successive government Ministers, but one that is more self confident, more self improving and with a higher status. This overall vision is what we meant in the latest Policy Exchange report on PRP, when we talked about the importance of PRP sitting within wider changes to teacher pay bands, and teaching standards, all under the auspices of the proposed Royal College of Teaching.

Like others who have commented supportively, I think that the current model of achieving QTS and then potentially undertaking a teaching career of 40 years or more with little external validation is unsatisfactory as a guarantee of quality or familiarity with up to the minute pedagogy or research. Public accountability demands that taxpayers and parents are both comfortable with knowing that the teachers in England’s schools have been shown to be of high quality – and whose quality has been demonstrated both recently, and against a national set of standards that goes above and beyond an assessment of their performance that year in their current place of employment.

I think a Licence also benefits teachers. Of course, there will be many who see it as an imposition from government, and a tick box exercise, or some impugning of their professionalism. But there will be many who will welcome the chance to gain an external mark of professional standing. I also believe that a Licence ought to spur moves towards greater quality and consistency of CPD – something which is all too variable at the minute. This was one of the key findings of our recent report on PRP – where we argued that one of the benefits of PRP will be less the direct financial reward, and more the creation of system which encourages and drives teachers to demand high quality professional development. After all, if their pay rise is on the line, then they are entitled to opportunities to develop their teaching and show the required growth. This applies all the more if their licence to practise is similarly at stake.

The devil of a Licence is very much in the detail, and there is clearly much more to be worked out. By way of a starter for 10 to this discussion, I suggest the key elements of a successful Licence could be:

  1. It assesses performance against a national set (or series of increasing national sets) of standards. These standards should be profession owned. The current set of Teachers’ Standards are a great place to start and were designed by an independent review group. A similar group, or the Royal College, should be responsible for keeping them up to date
  2. It sits separately to the annual appraisal process. Appraisal is about performance that year in a specific place of work, and achievement of objectives in a specific job (albeit ones linked to the Standards), and should be the threshold for (performance related) advancement up the payscale. The Licence is about wider professional standing and achievement over a longer timescale.
  3. It is not granted by the school. Partly, this removes the risk of surface compliance, and it also removes confusion between the Licence and annual appraisal. I like the idea of the Royal College granting it. But in practice much of this assessment will either need to be self certified, or done by peer review by suitably experienced other teachers on behalf of the Royal College, simply to manage numbers
  4. The focus of the Licence should be on professional mastery. It should absolutely not be accompanied by an entitlement to CPD (I agree with David Weston’s argument that this would be a waste of money whilst much current CPD is so poor) and neither should it require a minimum number of hours CPD a year for the same reason. But the focus of the standards for assessment should be around mastery of pedagogy and professional understanding – and at higher levels, the development of others as well as self – rather than personal performance or achievement of pupils. Ideally, I’d personally like to see 360 feedback in here from colleagues and even students (just as doctor revalidation includes patient feedback), but this may be a bridge too far at least initially.
  5. The process must be transparent. Teachers should be on a public register whereby parents can see when they were last assessed and the level (on the Standards, or on the Royal College framework) they have attained.
  6. The Licence must have bite. The vast majority of teachers will be expected to pass. But there must be a real possibility that a teacher will be denied revalidation of their Licence. Ultimately, if no improvement is forthcoming, the Royal College must be able to withdraw a Licence and prevent teachers from teaching. (Incidentally, one thing which worries me about the Royal College being both upholder of professional standards, and the regulator, is a potential conflict of interest between these two functions. In medicine and in law, there is a distinction between these functions – the various Royal Colleges mandate what eg surgeons or GPs need to do, and the GMC regulates their conduct)

So in as far as it is clear that Tristram Hunt is proposing a similar system to this, I am in favour. Whilst this is being portrayed as a counterblast to Gove’s support for the removing of mandatory QTS (a narrative along the lines of “Whilst the Conservatives will let anyone teach your children, Labour will ensure they are properly qualified and standards are maintained over their career”), I actually see it as complementary. Teachers should be allowed to teach in state schools regardless of whether they hold a specific QTS qualification or not, so long as they can demonstrate standards of practice satisfactorily. As I have said, a Licence is not without risks. But as with performance related pay, if the principle is right, then it should be taken forward, with a clear emphasis on the right design principles to make it work. Policy Exchange stands ready to offer further thoughts on how this might happen.


Jonathan Simons

Jonathan Simons
Head of Education 

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