Sunday 18 March 2018

Problem teachers under the spotlight

Meadhbh McGrath looks at issues that have given rise to 'fitness to teach' hearings abroad

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The news that the Department of Education would be toughening up on under performing teachers was met with mixed reactions - while many parents welcomed the 'fitness to teach' provisions as a form of quality assurance, some teachers fear they will be hounded out of the profession.

The new measures complement existing school complaints procedures and will allow any person, including members of the public, employers or teachers, to make a complaint to the Teaching Council about a registered teacher.

If there are serious grounds for concern, a complaint may end up the subject of a public disciplinary hearing, the first of which are expected to start early next year.

If experience elsewhere is anything to go by, up to 30 teachers a year could face such hearings.

In extreme cases, a teacher may be 'struck off' the professional register or they may be issued with a suspension order, a reprimand or receive an offer of support to improve performance.

The process is similar to that which is already in place for doctors and nurses in this country, while 'fitness to teach' measures have been in place in Scotland and Wales for decades.

Of the teachers who have been removed from the register in the UK, many cases relate to straightforward misconduct, such as sexual misdemeanours, while others concern poor professional performance. In Wales, the Education Workforce Council (EWC) has heard five cases in the past 12 months that involve inappropriate relationships between teachers and learners, representing 18pc of the total number heard in that period.

A case before the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) in June involved a female physical education teacher in a post-primary school in Glasgow, who was struck off following a series of complaints about her competency, including one from the parent of a child who had been instructed to participate in PE despite having an exemption certificate due to a concussion.

In a separate incident, the teacher was found to have made no efforts to contact a senior staff member after a pupil sustained a "serious injury" during her class. There were instances where she excluded pupils from her classes because she said she was "unable to manage a class with uneven numbers" and disciplined a boy with severe communication difficulties for not taking part in social dance. On one occasion, she left the class she was teaching and the school without informing anyone of her departure.

A wealth of support services were put in place between October 2011 and June 2013, including internal and external observations, oral and written feedback sessions, a reduced workload and visits to other classes and schools to observe different teachers at work.

The teachers monitoring her classes said she conducted PE lessons "like a free-for-all", where students were left unattended and could lift weights far above their capacity. Pupils were inactive and disengaged for much of the class time, with one external monitor describing the classes as "the worst two lessons she had seen in 17 years of teaching". The teacher was removed from the register.

Another case in Wales involved a primary school teacher who was banned from teaching last June after leaving a young pupil on his own during a school trip two years ago.

His "unacceptable professional conduct" also included an incident in 2013 where he secretly recorded a staff meeting on his iPad without permission and disclosed confidential information relating to other teachers' lesson observations and the head teacher's draft plans for future staffing - behaviour which was deemed by the EWC committee to be "dishonest". He was handed a prohibition order and will be eligible for re-registration in 2018.

However, teaching councils do not rush to ban teachers from the classroom - far from it. As well as offering plentiful support measures for struggling teachers, if a case goes to a hearing, the panel will take into consideration whether the respondent has learned from his or her mistakes and can be let off with a milder penalty.

A Scottish computing teacher was issued with a temporary restriction order after making a series of inappropriate remarks towards his students, such as asking a female student if it was her "time of the month" because she wore red tights. He was also found to have inappropriately touched another female student's shirt and unzipped her breast pocket.

The teacher told pupils to accept his friend requests on Facebook, where his profile was listed under a false name, and he exchanged messages with them asking about their personal lives.

After being instructed by the head teacher to remove his profile and cease such online 'friendships', he set up a new profile under a different false name and continued to communicate with a pupil, towards whom he was found to have made "overly friendly and inappropriate" comments.

At the time, he was described as being under stress while working long shifts with a lengthy commute.

He moved to another school and the GTCS panel was satisfied that he had since learned how to maintain appropriate pupil-teacher boundaries. The restriction order was cancelled and he was allowed to return to teaching.

In the UK, the findings of each hearing is published on the GTCS and EWC websites in documents that can run to 60 or more pages. The public availability can cause problems for teachers returning to a school.

Drew Morrice of the Education Institute of Scotland, the country's largest teaching union, says the release of this information has been an "ongoing issue" for the union.

"There is something curious about Scotland and you might find that in Ireland as well. The smaller the community the teacher works in, the more well-known they are. Therefore, you get in the rural areas a more disproportionate impact from GTCS procedures.

"You get that in two regards: one is that local newspapers are more likely to do their own reporting based on what's on the GTCS website and that can often be more intrusive than national newspapers.

"The second one is the size of the community - everyone knows each other and it's always a bit more difficult for those teachers to go back into the community." Mr Morrice says he is not aware of hearings having such a detrimental impact on teachers that they choose to leave teaching altogether, but the process can be very intense for the individual concerned.

"Any sort of regulatory system that conducts its business in public does bring a significant anxiety for teachers who are subject to it.

"We are certainly well aware that from more high-profile cases, going through the GTCS can be enormously stressful for individuals and that's a significant part of our work - to try to manage that," he says.

"We take a person through what the hearing process entails and we will alert them to the fact there will always be publicity coming from GTCS proceedings and trying to alert them to the fact they may get doorstepped by local press and to be on their guard about public reaction."

Irish Independent

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