Emma O Kelly: Inquiry likely to lead to more complaints

Updated / Saturday, 11 Nov 2017 16:32

The country's first public teacher fitness to practise inquiry took place at the Teaching Council in Maynooth

By Emma O Kelly

It was an incident that took place more than five years ago that was at the centre of the country's first ever public teacher fitness to practise inquiry, heard on Wednesday.

It occurred during a maths class when five girls, aged around 10 or 11, say they had sellotape applied across their lips, or were told to apply it, by a substitute teacher as a punishment for talking and messing in class. The school's principal backs up their story. The teacher denies it.

Five years is a long time in the life of a child. They've grown and moved on and the anonymous teacher at the centre of this case may have moved on too.

Listening to the evidence of the children involved, who are now young women, it appeared that they were glad that their story was before a disciplinary inquiry. Who could blame them?

Silenced, they say, and in such a degrading fashion as children, literally gagged. On Wednesday they spoke out about an injustice they say they suffered as children and their voices were heard. That's an opportunity that Irish society has not always afforded its youngest citizens and we've seen the dire consequences of that.

But the teacher was far from happy. She did not attend, but in letters to the Teaching Council she said the allegations were "unfounded" and "historical".

A public hearing, we heard, was "not something she could go through with". "I would not be physically able for the rigours of an oral hearing," she told lawyers acting for the council.

It's only fair to acknowledge that the great stress associated with appearing at a public hearing, accused of a physical assault on children in your care, can only have been compounded by the fact that this was the first ever hearing of its kind, and was for that reason certain to attract huge media interest.

Why was an incident from so long ago - relatively speaking - the subject of this inquiry?

The legislation that underpins these hearings was commenced in July of last year. In general, the Teaching Council can only accept complaints related to events that occurred after that date.

However, there are what the Teaching Council calls "very limited circumstances" under which allegations from prior to July 2016 can be considered.

The alleged conduct must have been such as to constitute a criminal offence when it occurred. Not only that, but it also must "give rise to a bone fide concern that the teacher may harm or pose a risk to a child or vulnerable person".

The formal charge against this teacher was professional misconduct. But the Teaching Council clearly decided in preliminary deliberations that the allegations against her, if true, also met these two additional criteria.

Why was this case chosen as the first one to be heard? Only the Teaching Council knows the answer to that.

The council says it has received around 50 complaints since the process got up and running last year and 25 have been discounted. It's likely that a proportion of the 25 complaints that remain under investigation relate to events that took place prior to July 2016. That’s a backlog of serious allegations, alleged occurrences that were never resolved.

It's also likely that - having seen and read of Wednesday's hearing - others will now decide to come forward and make complaints related to things that happened to them or to their children in schools in the past, long before last year, perhaps people who felt until now that they had nowhere to turn.

So it's quite likely that we will see inquiries into more serious allegations from before July 2016 over the coming months and years.

All of these initial cases will be watched carefully by people involved in all sectors of the education system, but most especially perhaps, they'll be watched carefully by teachers themselves.