Children may give evidence about poor teachers
PUPILS and parents will give evidence at hearings being introduced to deal with complaints of serious misconduct and underperformance by teachers in primary and second-level schools.
For the first time in Irish education history, individual teachers will soon be subject to Fitness to Teach investigations by their professional standards body, the Teaching Council.
Legislation due to be enacted this summer will pave the way for the investigations, which may include hearings similar to those conducted by the Medical Council or the nurses' professional body, An Bord Altranais.
Such investigations would be a last resort – and would only take place after school disciplinary procedures have been exhausted.
Once the new law is in place, any person may apply to the Teaching Council for an inquiry into a teacher's fitness to teach, where there are serious grounds for concern.
A hearing committee will have a range of sanctions available to it including, in the most serious cases, expulsion from the teachers' register.
The first investigations/hearings could happen next year, and decisions about whether they will be held in public or private will be made on a case-by-case basis.
A Teaching Council Investigation Committee will decide whether the case merits being put forward to a Disciplinary Committee, which will set up a panel – with a majority of teacher members – to conduct the hearing.
Hearings may be either in public, in private or a mix of both. This would allow for children's evidence to be given in private, similar to what happens in the courts.
Teaching Council director Tomas O Ruairc said the circumstances where children or parents might be called to give evidence would depend on the circumstances of the case.
He said they would not necessarily be confined to cases where the complaint originated with parents or children.
"The involvement of children would be one factor in deciding whether a hearing would be held partly or wholly in private. However, regardless of the decision in relation to the hearing as a whole, the evidence of children may be heard in private," he said.
Although similar hearings in Scotland and Wales are generally held in public, offering maximum transparency about how such complaints are handled, the Teaching Council has advised a "case-by-case" policy in Ireland.
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has accepted the advice, which he said should allow for "a process which takes into account the needs of students, parents and teachers and the sensitivities surrounding each case".
However, he said the department would review, in partnership with the council, the approach shortly after such hearings commenced in order to ensure accountability and transparency were to the fore.
Mr Quinn welcome the fact that students and /or their parents would be given the opportunity to be involved in hearings which is "seen as very much in keeping with the drive to ensure the student voice is at the centre of education issues".
Currently, complaints about a teacher's professional misconduct or underperformance are dealt with at school level.
The Teaching Council itself is a relatively new body, having been established in 2006, and the functions and powers envisaged for it have been rolled out on a gradual basis.
Similar to other aspects of the Teaching Council legislation, the Fitness to Teach provision is aimed at protecting the public interest and enhancing trust in the profession.
It follows another major initiative this year – the introduction of compulsory registration for teachers. Teachers have to satisfy certain educational requirements to be on the register and will not be paid by the State if they are not registered.
While expulsion from the register would be the most serious sanction of a Fitness to Teacher inquiry, in other situations teachers may be suspended, or given advice or an admonishment, and offered support and an opportunity to improve their performance.