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Where is teachers’ professional status going? - Sandro Spiteri

What is new in the Bill, and possibly worrying, is the insertion of a new clause that gives the Council the power to submit the applicant to a proficiency test to ensure that continuous professional development has been successfully completed.

What is new in the Bill, and possibly worrying, is the insertion of a new clause that gives the Council the power to submit the applicant to a proficiency test to ensure that continuous professional development has been successfully completed.

The rise in the status of teachers in Malta throughout the 20th century mirrors the steady improvement of education provision and investment therein by successive governments. From being considered akin to janitors in 1907, which prompted the formation of the Malta Union of Teachers (MUT), teachers finally achieved professional status 30 years ago, in the 1988 Education Act.

However, the MUT’s own published history and other documents show that this was awarded by the government of the time as an administrative measure that addressed teachers’ demands for a significant rise of pay. This was done so as not to create a shock-wave of additional wage-rise demands in the rest of the public service. Research has shown that although government’s discourse was that teachers’ new status should be accompanied by improved efforts and outcomes, teachers saw this award as recognition of what they were already doing.

There was no concerted drive from within teachers’ ranks for the typical markers of a profession: the setting up of a professional association that determines its own standards, develops its own code of ethics, monitors the quality of provision, mandates continuous professional development (CPD) as a condition for membership, and that prevails upon government to recognise all these developments. 

Indeed, teachers accepted with hardly a murmur a new Code of Ethics – which the MUT itself called a Code of Behaviour – which was not developed or owned by the profession but imposed by government.

In spite of several half-hearted attempts over the years, the teaching profession never managed to set up a professional organisation that had a distinct function from its unions. Although the MUT used to call itself both the main union and the professional association for the sector, the obvious potential for conflicts of interest between these two roles was never addressed.

For some years the MUT did have a minor research and professional publications function, but this has now ceased. Indeed, the current MUT leadership was  elected on the proposal to separate the trade-unionistic functions for the professional association function, although work on the latter is not yet evident. 

This is not to say that there has not been a marked improvement in the quality of the professional and critical engagement of teachers in all educational processes and outcomes since 1988. This has come about through school development planning, ongoing CPD much of which on teachers’ own initiative, ongoing research in all areas, and the steady improvements in pre-service training that are now (nominally) at Masters level. But somehow, teachers, have not ‘owned’ their profession in the same way that other sectors have. The ‘original sin’ of the paternalistic professionalisation of teachers by the State still casts a shadow on the profession.

That shadow has got darker with the proposed Bill for the Education Professions. In my column last Sunday I discussed how the Bill effectively sidelines the Faculty of Education and gives government the licence to cut corners in pre-service training as it deems fit. In this article I discuss why the Bill contributes to the decline of the professional status of teacher also in terms of the changing nature of the warranting process.

Teachers need to claim their professional status as their own, as other sectors have done

The issue of teachers’ professional status needs to be seen from a wider perspective, even in comparison with other sectors. Not all professional warrants are equal. For example, those of doctors, dental surgeons, pharmacists, midwives and lawyers are issued by the President of the Republic of Malta, while those of accountants, psychotherapists and social workers are issued by their respective ministers. Up to now, teachers were in the second category, but with the proposed Bill their warrants will be issued by the President of the Council for the Teaching and Allied Professions. Government has not explained why this change was deemed necessary for teachers.

Another difference between the professions is in the requirement to undertake CPD. The warrants of medical professionals are not conditional to CPD, but then CPD is typically a requirement for continued membership in the respective professional bodies. This is also true for other established professions.

The Psychotherapy Profession Act does require warrant-holders to prove that they have undertaken prescribed CPD every three years, but has no mention of sanctions if this requirement is fulfilled. As with the medical professionals, psychotherapists have to fulfil CPD requirements to maintain international membership and recognition.

On the other hand, the Social Work Professionals Act provides for the suspension of warrant until the prescribed CPD requirements are fulfilled. The Education Act as it currently stands has similar requirements for teachers. However, the reality is that this clause in the Education Act has never been effectively implemented by the Council for the Teaching Profession, which does beg the question: why?

So, tying together the professional warrant to a CPD requirement is not an absolute novelty in the proposed Bill for the education professions. What is new in the Bill, and possibly worrying, is the insertion of a new clause that gives the Council the power to submit the applicant to a proficiency test to ensure that the CPD has been successfully completed. It is this clause that has the MUT up in arms. However this power is limited to when a teacher’s warrant has been suspended due to lack of fulfilment of the CPD requirement, so it is not a catch-all clause as has been reported in the media.

Nevertheless, it is still worrying that this additional safeguard was only included in the warranting process of teachers, not of the other professions surveyed here. When this is put in the context of the downgrading of the status of the warrant being issued by the Council instead of the Minister, it is legitimate to ask what are the implications of how government is perceiving teachers. It seems that government has a three-tier model of the professions, in which the sole occupants of the bottom tier are teachers. Teachers may well be forgiven in sensing a worrying change in the air with respect to how government views their professional status.

In the last few weeks we have seen that teachers’ increasing foreboding can translate itself into decisive action. It can get even a government with an overwhelming electoral mandate and increasing signs of hubris to stop, blink and back-track. But such action is not enough. What needs to be addressed is the lingering sense that teachers’ professional status is somehow less than that of other sectors.

Union action does not even begin to address this. Too often, union action has been predicated on the lowest common factor, not on the highest standards we should be aspiring for. Teachers need to claim their professional status as their own, as other sectors have done.

We in the profession need to take the lead in defining our profession. We need to show that we are the best guarantors of the highest standards of teaching and learning. We need to clamour first and foremost not for better conditions but for higher achievement, higher standards for all, for true inclusion, access and equity.

Then, only then, can we proudly claim to be professionals. This Bill lets down teachers. We can be better than this.

Dr Sandro Spiteri was Director of Education for Quality Assurance and for the Curriculum.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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