Fitness-to-teach hearings to be held in public ‘by default’

Minister overrules Teaching Council’s advice on new professional practice inquiries

New “fitness-to-teach” hearings will be held in public as standard, Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan has announced, overruling a recommendation of the professional body for teachers.

The Teaching Council, two third of which is made up of teachers and their union representatives, had proposed that a sub-committee would be charged with deciding on a case by case basis whether the long-awaited fitness hearings would be held in public or private.

However, the Minister said she intended to introduce an amendment to the Teaching Council Amendment Bill, 2014, to provide for the hearings to be held in public “as the default position”.

She said exceptions would be made where necessary “to protect the rights of individuals” and she would seek the council’s advice on factors that could be considered in such cases.

“This will ensure that the new fitness to teach framework will mirror best practice as regards disciplinary hearings for other professional bodies.”

The announcement is expected to draw a strong reaction from teacher unions, already warring with the Minster over junior cycle reforms.

While teachers in other jurisdictions have long had a system of public hearings by default, the Teaching Council argued that public hearings should only take place here when there was agreement on the matter from all parties to an inquiry.

Among the arguments the council put forward to justify this advice to the Minister was that “Ireland is a small place and the fact that a teacher is up before a panel will be widely known with the potential for an impact on their reputation even if no finding is made against them”.

The fitness hearings are due to take place later this year under the auspices of the council. Under the new legislation, which is published before the Oireachtas this week, the council will have the capacity to remove a teacher from its register where it deems the person unfit to teach, including where this is for child protection reasons.

The council will also be charged with investigating underperformance or conduct issues on foot of complaints from students, parents and teachers, among others.

Only issues “of sufficient gravity” will result in an inquiry. Those against whom decisions are made may be suspended from the register or receive a sanction of “advice, admonishment or censure”.

The Bill also makes provision for retrospective Garda vetting and periodic re-vetting of all registered teachers.

Figures from the Teaching Council last October showed that about 40 per cent of its 90,000 registered teachers had yet to be Garda vetted. The Minster said she understood it was the council’s intention to prioritise this work in the year after enactment of the new legislation.

Statutory vetting arrangements will, in addition to the existing check for criminal offences, also include a check for any relevant “soft information”. This is referred to as specified information that leads to a bona-fide belief that a person poses a threat to children or vulnerable persons.

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times and writer of the Unthinkable philosophy column