The timing of Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan’s announcement that long-awaited “fitness-to-teach” hearings will be held in public, save for exceptional circumstances, will not be lost on the teacher unions.
As they take to the picket lines for a second day of strike action over the junior cycle reforms, the Minister has set down a clear marker that she won’t roll over easily on key policy matters.
The fitness hearings have been mooted for well over a decade and the establishment of the Teaching Council in 2006 was the first step towards their realisation.
Since then, the teacher unions have been engaged in a rearguard action to limit the scope of such inquiries and to ensure they are held largely if not entirely in private.
The issue came to a head within the council last year when the teachers used their in-built majority to push through a recommendation for a hybrid model of public and private hearings.
Of 37 seats on the council, 22 are reserved for teachers, including union representatives. In contrast, parents’ groups have two places on the council, with other stakeholders making up the remainder of seats.
In a recommendation to the Minister, the council said a subcommittee should be allowed to decide, on a case- by-case basis, the format of hearings. However, because this committee would have a two-to-one teacher majority, it was thought highly unlikely that public hearings would be allowed in practice.
The council itself admitted in a briefing document to members that its proposal would be out of step with regulatory bodies for other professions such as law or medicine, as well as with international equivalents.
The teaching councils of Scotland and Wales both hold fitness hearings in public, save for exceptional circumstances such as to protect vulnerable witnesses.
Explaining its decision recently, Teaching Council director Tomás Ó Ruairc told The Irish Times the compromise plan was aimed at assisting in a “smooth transition” from the current situation of having no fitness hearing.
But, he said, it was important “to acknowledge that we have a professional majority on the council and it’s up to the profession to show it’s fair, robust and up to high standards. Equally to those who may be sceptical about how it might work, I would ask that you give the profession a chance to show it can work, and by all means we can seek to revisit it later.”
Ms O’Sullivan has decided to deal with that, saying she plans to include a provision in the Teaching Council Amendment Bill, 2014 to have the hearings in line with “best practice in other areas”.
She said it would be in everybody’s interest that the hearings were held in public, “in the interest of the public in particular – but also I think even of the person who is the subject of the hearing”.
The Minister has also expanded the eligible grounds for investigation to include: behaviour amounting to professional misconduct; poor professional performance; fraudulent declaration of qualifications; medically unfit to teach; and criminal conviction.