School teaching ought to rank among the most respected of professions. Those who educate our children are every bit as important to us as, say, doctors or lawyers, arguably more important. Education is essential to everyone's chances in life; medical or legal advice is an infrequent need for most people.
Many, perhaps most, school teachers are well respected by the parents of their pupils and others who know their work. But the profession as a whole does not have the standing that it should and the reason is obvious: it lacks an authoritative professional voice.
The Teachers Council, the registration body that ought to speak with the authority of the New Zealand Law Society or Medical Association, never offers a view on educational issues. It is known to the public only in its disciplinary role, and in that role it has been unduly secretive and protective. Teachers do just about all their collective professional speaking through the bodies that also negotiate their terms of employment and professionally that does not work.
When the New Zealand Educational Institute or the Post-Primary Teachers' Association takes a position on issues of professional interest it is bound to be influenced by the effect on the working conditions and preferences of its members. That may be true also of legal aid lawyers and hospital medical staff but their particular representatives are not the most respected voices in their professions. Teachers have no other organisation to speak for them.
The Government has taken it upon itself to try to repair the deficiency. A committee reviewing the Teachers Council for Education Minister Hekia Parata has proposed that the council be replaced by a body of a different name that would be appointed entirely by the minister but have statutory independence from ministerial direction.
As well as having the power to register and discipline teachers, the new body would be charged with identifying issues of education policy and leading professional and public debate on teaching practices. It would be given a statutory obligation to promote the public interest and the interests of children and students and the review committee hopes the new body would come to be seen to represent the voice and face of the profession.
It is not in the power of government, of course, to tell any occupational group how they shall represent themselves. Teachers' unions will treat this suggestion with caution, particularly as it comes from a review for a National Government. The partisan politics of their unions is another reason teachers lack the status of other professions in the public eye.
The review committee was under no illusions that teachers would readily pay for a more professional voice as other professions do. The review suggests the new body would need to be funded by the Government for a period. In time, perhaps, it could prove its independence and command sufficient respect from the public and teachers to be funded by the profession.
But it would require a major change in the culture of teaching to separate professional issues from employment concerns. The unions promote a public educational ideal that insists all schools are the same, teachers are of equal worth, competition is damaging as is choice, pupils should have to attend their nearest school, classes should have much the same range of ability.
That culture is failing poorer pupils. A profession worthy of the name would be open to change.