Bruton: 'fitness to teach' cases won't be a bonanza for lawyers
Efforts will be made to stop new 'fitness to teach' cases turning into lucrative events for lawyers, Education Minister Richard Bruton has said.
The minister said school principals would still have the key role in dealing with day-to-day problems with teachers but serious incidents of misconduct would now be heard by a special Teaching Council committee.
Mr Bruton noted that the current situation meant there were no provisions whereby a person can be found guilty of misconduct and struck off the professional register.
Similar fitness to practise hearings are already commonplace for nurses, doctors and solicitors - but in recent times they have become increasingly legalistic.
"I think the Teaching Council in its approach to the way it handles, the way it screens decisions, the way it brings them to the final disciplinary committee, they will put in place procedures that makes it easy for members of the public to use this system," Mr Bruton said. "We all want to see a system that is accessible to people, that fair and natural justice must prevail.
"The determination will be to avoid excess legalistic approaches in the council."
Under the new rules, teachers could find themselves facing a fitness to practise hearing on a number of grounds, including professional misconduct, poor professional performance, convictions and being medically unfit to teach.
Mr Bruton said that there would be "a presumption" that cases would be held in public unless there were specific reasons why it shouldn't, such as the involvement of a child.
"I think we can have confidence. The Teaching Council has put together a register and a code of conduct.
"Its reputation is on the line. It needs to ensure the standards it has set are observed by all the profession," he said.
Director of the Teaching Council Tomás Ó Ruairc said professional standards in the classroom affected the lives of every single person.
He said it was "vital that a formal mechanism exists for the investigation of complaints".
"The fitness to teach complaints process, therefore, is about improving teaching, not punishing teachers."
The Ombudsman for Children's Office said that up to this point there had been "no appropriate avenue of redress for complaints about allegations of inappropriate professional conduct of teachers and school staff".
Almost half of all complaints received by the Ombudsman's Office in 2014 related to the education sector.
"A comprehensive and consistent complaints-handling structure to deal with these types of complaints is badly needed and must be welcomed," said the Head of Participation and Education at the Ombudsman for Children's Office, Dr Karen McAuley.
"It is expected that only very serious cases of improper professional conduct will be considered for investigation.
"The Ombudsman for Children's Office will monitor closely the threshold set by the Teaching Council for a very serious complaint. It is important that parents, and advocates on behalf of children, are clear about how they can have their concerns addressed," he said.
Mr Bruton also confirmed plans to create a Parents' Charter, which will help parents to navigate the school system.