Recent archival research at the school of education, University of Adelaide, and at UCL, Institute of Education, London reveals that the foundation of the UK College of Teachers (originally formed as the College of Preceptors 170 years ago) and its sister organisation in South Australia, set up in 1851, were both shrouded in controversy.
These controversies have a bearing on the present debate of the desirability of state financial aid for the planned Chartered College of Teaching and the role of government.
Both the London-based College of Preceptors and its Australian counterpart approached their respective politicians for material help. The South Australians were relentless in their demands for state support. The UK Preceptors, on the other hand, withdrew their pleas for funding in accordance with the wishes of their members.
Even if the English preceptors did want financial aid from the government, the only reward would have been partial sympathy and praise. The bottom line was that, irrespective of the preceptors’ wishes, the state was unprepared to give any practical or financial help to the middle classes who were the consumers that the College of Preceptors served.
There are concerns the new College of Teaching is heading the same way as the failed General Teaching Council for England (GTCE). The latter became too reliant on financial support from the government, which challenged its independence.
A chartered college would, many agree, therefore do well to stick to the principle of becoming autonomous and self-sufficient
Yet considerable importance is now being placed on a Chartered College of Teaching. Some politicians, and particularly Charlotte Leslie, the Conservative MP initially charged with promoting the reform, are aware it must be a profession-led organisation and not controlled by government.
The GTCE was unsuccessful partly because it was regularly subsidised by Labour and was often referred to as the government’s “puppet”.
Membership of a new chartered college will be voluntary and many efforts are being made to promote teacher professionalism and higher standards.
A chartered college would, many agree, therefore do well to stick to the principle of becoming autonomous and self-sufficient.
In defence of state aid, the argument is that any grant will only cover start-up costs. Such assurances may pacify the fears of those who consider freedom from state superintendence essential for success. Had the early UK Preceptors successfully gained government help they would not have been free from state control and scrutiny. But, on the surface, it appears the new college can potentially make a distinct contribution to the teaching profession.
The leading concerns of teachers are less to do with professionalism and more tied to improvements in pay and conditions. The new college may do well to recognise a very significant lesson, first experienced by many private teachers in Victorian Britain and later by the GTCE, that funding from the state is not always the best way forward.
The South Australian preceptors were, by contrast, always in favour of government intervention. The overriding concern was to have a professional body of teachers warmly accepted and approved by teachers, irrespective of the role of government. Without the influence of members, the English preceptors’ leaders would have taken the same line. Yet it has to be acknowledged that state control of teachers in England was expressly treated with much fear and derision.
It is interesting that this debate was rehearsed by our Victorian ancestors, only for teacher pressure groups to face similar issues again, as relevant today as they were in the mid-19th century.
Richard Williams is visiting research fellow at the school of education, University of Adelaide