‘Fitness to teach’ inquiries in public rejected

Teaching Council decides against similar model to legal and medical professions

Ruairí Quinn: had previously urged the council to try to deliver maximum transparency

Ruairí Quinn: had previously urged the council to try to deliver maximum transparency

 



The regulatory body for the teaching profession has decided against holding planned new “fitness to teach” hearings in public along similar lines to the medical or legal professions.

The Teaching Council, two-thirds of which is made up of teachers, voted yesterday to recommend that a subcommittee decide on a “case by case basis” whether disciplinary hearings should take place in public or private.

Those pushing for greater transparency believe the disciplinary committee will, in practice, rarely rule in favour of public hearings as teachers have a majority of members on the panel.

The council decision represented a compromise between either “default private” or “default public” hearings.

However, it was still strongly opposed by secondary teachers who believe any hearings in public may be unfairly used to tarnish the reputation of colleagues.

The council is set to communicate the decision to Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn who plans to draft legislation based on the council’s recommendations.

Mr Quinn had previously urged the council to try to deliver maximum transparency.

He pointed out that even the family law courts had opened up to media coverage with a view to informing the wider community.

Conceded
The council itself has conceded that the move is out of step with the industry norm. In a briefing document circulated to members, it pointed out that its counterpart bodies in both Scotland and Wales hold public hearings by default unless a select panel found it was contrary to public interest or there were particular confidentiality concerns.

Similarly, both the Medical Council of Ireland and the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland hold disciplinary meetings in public unless special circumstances apply.

It was argued by members of the Teaching Council that such organisations had a bedding down period where no disciplinary hearings were in public, and that public hearings might become more frequent as the council became more confident operating the procedures.

There were also fears expressed that having public hearings as the default would have prompted legal challenges.

The Irish Times reported last month that the council had received legal advice casting doubt over its authority to hold fitness-to-practise hearings in public.

legislation
In an analysis of the Teaching Council Act 2001, Séamus Woulfe SC, informed the council that the legislation “contemplates but does not necessarily require” that planned oral hearings before the disciplinary committee panel be held in private.

He notes there is the scope for the panel having “a residual discretion to conduct an oral hearing in public” but this would only apply “if all parties were agreed and if the panel thought it was the proper thing to do”.

Before voting on the compromise option yesterday, council members were asked to consider a document outlining arguments in favour and against public hearings.

Among the arguments in favour was that it “recognises the need for transparency and accountability to the public and to the profession”.

Among the arguments against 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”.