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Teachers: a code, or just Christmas wrapping?

23 December 2004
Media Release

Teachers: a code, or just Christmas wrapping?

The teachers’ code of ethics released this month by the Teachers Council may unfortunately not be worth the paper it is written on, says Dr John Langley, Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland, and former head of the Teachers Registration Board, which began the development of the code.

“I wonder how a professional code of ethics can be binding on its members when it stops short of imposing any sanction for breaches of that code. This question is, instead, left unresolved.

“If you are a teacher you are likely to be confused by the less-than-definite statement ‘[the code] may also be used as a basis to challenge the ethical behaviour of a teacher and could provide grounds for complaint if a teacher’s practice fall seriously short of these standards’.”

“Perhaps the meaning of this is intended to be resolved over time, but by dodging the issue, I think the statement is saying that the code isn’t binding on its members, and I believe that to be unacceptable. I doubt whether members of other professions can choose to ‘opt in’ or ‘opt out’ of their professional standards in this way.

“It begs the question, if you’re not going to use the profession’s own ethical standards as the basis for disciplinary procedures, what do you use?

“A code of ethics can actually protect teachers, because if there is a clear set of ethical standards and guidelines that teachers have committed to, then when a complaint is made by a parent or member of the public, the code is the standard against which the complaint is assessed.

“At present teachers facing discipline can be charged with a crime or be assessed against their particular schools’ policies, which is hardly satisfactory. The code’s standards are much more protective and positive for teachers than being judged by individual schools and their individual rules, which may all differ.”

While the code is useful as a set of general principles for each professional situation, and its inspirational intent is admirable, the current wording that asks teachers simply to ‘strive to’ meet each principle makes the document little more than Santa’s wishlist, says Dr Langley.

“When you look at other codes, such as that for doctors, it’s not a question of ‘striving to’ – they are more resolute. By avoiding the words ‘teachers will be expected to’ the document conveniently sidesteps professional responsibility.

“Unfortunately consultation has resulted in the watering down of this code. What we have is a general set of principles, which while fine in themselves, don’t actually commit anybody to anything.”


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