Just Because You’re Paranoid Doesn’t Mean They’re Not Out to Get You!
The Irish Times reports that the Minister for Education has decided that ‘Fitness-to-Teach’ hearings will be held in public and she will amend the Teaching Council Act 2001 to include this.
This is a very serious step to take in a small society such as Ireland and one that has the potential to produce significant and foreseeable, if unintended, effects.
The Teaching Council’s recommendation was that a sub-committee would decide on a case-by-case basis whether a case would be heard in public or private. Even this is not entirely satisfactory but it is a more balanced approach than the Minister’s ap
proach (or the DES’ to be exact – they advise the Minister after all).
There are cases that, on the face of it, will be essentially open-and-shut. In cases involving inappropriate contact with pupils (e.g. grooming or sexual contact), there is a very clear necessity for hearings to be held in public. However, it is hard to see how such a hearing could be held without there first having been a criminal conviction. This is how such cases are handled in England (while less serious cases are anonymised to varying degrees). In Scotland, the decision on public versus private hearings is on a case-by-case basis, for example, with the reasons, here.
In less serious cases in Ireland, the Council and the State could be exposed to an action where a teacher who has had a public hearing into their Fitness-to-Teach, has been found to be fit to teach but has suffered some loss as a result. That is, the complaint lacked foundation but the teacher still suffered. ‘Throw enough mud and it sticks’ is the appropriate, ironic analogy.
41. For the purposes of this Part, the following shall constitute professional misconduct by a registered teacher:
(a) engaging in conduct which is contrary to a code of professional conduct established by the Council under section 7(2)(b);
(b) engaging in any improper conduct in his or her professional capacity or otherwise by reason of which he or she is unfit to teach.
42. (1) The Council
or any person may apply to the Investigating Committee for an inquiry into the fitness to teach of a registered teacher on all or any of the following grounds:
(a) he or she has failed to comply with, or has contravened any provision of, this Act, the Education Act, 1998, the Education (Welfare) Act, 2000, the Vocational Education Acts, 1930 to 1999, or any regulations, rules or orders made under those Acts;
(b) his or her behaviour constitutes professional misconduct;
(c) his or her registration is erroneous due to a false or fraudulent declaration or misrepresentation;
(d) he or she is medically unfit to teach,
and an application shall, subject to this section, be considered by the Investigating Committee.
Given the enormously broad ‘definition’ of Fitness-to-Teach in the Teaching Council Act, it is conceivable that a great many teachers could find themselves on the end of a complaint. Even if there are only a handful of ‘awkward’ parents out there, it may be sufficient to cause a lot of headaches for a lot of people.
Take Section 42 (1) (a) for example. This section determines that a teacher could be held unfit to teach if they fail to comply with the requirements of the Education Act 1998 (among others). So, regardless of resources provided to schools, teachers are expected, and will be professionally accountable, to ensure that every provision of the Education Act relevant to their professional practice is implemented. This is clearly nonsense but an example may drive home the point.
I have a particular interest in the education of Exceptionally Able children. This area of Irish education has been neglected. There is NO formal training at Initial Teacher Education level nor via the NQT Induction Programme for teachers to be able to begin to meet the needs of these children. There are SESS workshops which schools can request, though I would argue a two day workshop is insufficient. And there are postgraduate courses which mention gifted education – but what teacher will do a post-grad costing up to €5000 when it now takes another three years after a primary degree to qualify to register as a teacher ? (unless the Council decides on a very narrow definition of their pending CPD policy).
The Education Act specifically defines Special Educational Needs as including Exceptionally Able children. If I was a parent of a gifted child, and if I was concerned about a school not meeting my child’s needs, I could take a complaint under the Fitness-to-Teach provisions of the Teaching Council Act.
Basically, my argument would be that because my child’s teachers are not formally trained in teaching gifted children, they are unfit to teach.
Given that every school is likely to have at least one gifted child, advocates of gifted children could, in theory, shut down the entire Irish school system!!!!!
It may sound ridiculous, but one test case is all it takes.
It would be much better if the The Powers That Be considered the permutations and combinations before they nailed another part of the teaching profession to the cross. It would be nice to think that the smart people that inhabit government do actually go through all the variables but history tends to contradict this assertion.
Now, one could argue that a parent could be held accountable civilly for vexacious complaints. A complaint may be vexacious but this would not necessarily nullify such a complaint. If the complaint has grounds, it stands. Notwithstanding this, a parent could argue that they honestly believed the complaint they made and that they had reasonable grounds for that belief. At which point a tribunal (Council hearing or even a court) would have to decide on whether the honesty and reasonableness of the belief and its grounds were required to satisfy an objective test or subjective test.
Section 41 (b)
Section 41 (b) is a further cause for concern for teachers. Paragraph (a) refers to conduct contrary to the Code of Professional Conduct. Paragraph (b) refers to ‘improper conduct’ and therefore could refer to conduct not necessarily included in the Code of Professional Conduct. This means that it is open to the Council to define ‘improper conduct’ beyond the scope of the Code of Professional Conduct. Necessarily this should be defined in advance of any conduct that would possibly be considered ‘improper’ in order to avoid the rule against retrospection.
However, the real concern is that any person can make a complaint. I am reminded of a tet-a-tet played out in a local news paper between a local politician and a school principal which was essentially a difference that arose form the principal’s political views. In such a case, the politician could argue that the principal’s political activities negatively impact on his professional duties and therefore his conduct is improper.
Here is an interesting Scottish case where a Teacher’s Fitness-to-Teach was adjudicated impaired owing to road traffic offences. While I can see merit in the case, I have to wonder what activities would be absolutely beyond the remit of a Fitness-to-Teach investigation panel. Could I be investigated by a Fitness-to-Teach panel for contributing to a debate on Prime Time or Vincent Browne for example? What if one’s socially acceptable values conflicts other socially acceptable values. Could this be an issue?
A lawyer could of course argue both sides of these points, or even their veracity to begin with, but there is sufficient grounds, in my opinion, for teachers to be concerned that someone, for example, who would prefer their son or daughter got a permanent teaching job, could make a complaint in order to essentially have a teacher removed from a school to free up a job.
Sounds fanciful and surely people aren’t that mean, are they? Hmmmm, yes!
It is clear that the Teaching Council needs a mechanism for removing teachers who are a threat to the general wellbeing of children. They also need a mechanism to remove teachers who are not professionally competent. There is a world of trouble tied up in defining professionally competent (Ahem!). While a Fitness-to-Teach mechanism will allow the Council the means to remove teachers who have had inappropriate contact with pupils and teachers adjudged professionally not competent – and this is a good and necessary thing – the same tool could be used to remove teachers unfairly.
How the Council balances this is an unenviable task. Sadly for the Council, it looks like the Minister is just going to dump this on their lap.
And that’s before I discuss ‘soft information’.
peterlydon dot iol at gmail dot com