Emma O Kelly: Will fitness to practise process work?

Updated / Wednesday, 8 Nov 2017 07:27

Countries like Scotland have had a system like this in place for more than 50 years

The notice on the Teaching Council website is unassuming; "In accordance with part 5 of the Teaching Council Act", it reads, "an inquiry concerning a teacher will be held by a panel of the Teaching Council".

But this modest alert signals something completely new in Irish education; something long overdue many would argue; the first formal disciplinary hearing against a teacher here.

We know nothing about the case that will be heard today, the allegations behind it, the teacher at its centre, but the very fact that it is taking place is a new departure and one that is bound to generate great interest, not least among parents and teachers. 

How is it, many ask, that we've been so long without any robust mechanism to hold teachers to account?

Countries like Scotland have had a system like this in place for more than 50 years. Nurses and doctors here are held accountable for their actions by their own profession standards bodies.

Why has it taken so long to put in place similar procedures for those women and men who play such a central, and for the most part positive, role in the lives of our children?

For those who have been unlucky enough to encounter, as students or as parents, a teacher who is manifestly unfit for the classroom, the often great difficulties that ensue can be compounded by the frustration of knowing that little or nothing can be done to remedy the situation.

The legislation enabling these hearings was finally set in train in July of last year. Since then, the council has received around 50 complaints.

Half of these complaints have since been discounted, but the other half have been deemed serious enough to warrant further investigation. 

Anyone can bring a complaint about a teacher to the Teaching Council; a parent, another teacher, or indeed a pupil.

In most cases, they will need to have first made a complaint to their school and exhausted procedures there. 

There are a number of grounds under which a complaint may be made. They include professional misconduct, poor performance, medical unfitness, and a serious court conviction.

Not all complaints will result in a full hearing, and the range of sanctions - if a teacher is found guilty - is wide, from censure or mandatory re-training, through to temporary suspension or even long-term removal from the teaching register. 

Once suspended from the register a teacher loses the right to teach in any publicly funded school here.

Today's hearing will have powers similar to the High Court, able to compel evidence and witnesses.

A three-person panel will adjudicate. Two of those three will be teachers. The panel will have a legal expert to advise. In many cases, children are likely to be key witnesses.

Today's hearing is expected to be heard over two days and in public. However, the Teaching Council has decided not to publicly identify the teacher, the witnesses or the school at its centre.

Will this new fitness to practise process work? Will it be accepted? Will it be fair to all? Many involved in education - at all levels - will follow this first hearing with great interest, because it may well hold answers to those questions.