Better local procedures over teachers sought before fitness-to-teach inquiry initiated

Parents want better local procedures to deal with complaints about teachers, which could prevent the need to hold fitness-to-teach inquiries.

National Parents’ Council Post-Primary president Paul Mooney welcomed the new powers given to the Teaching Council, from yesterday, to hold inquiries about teachers whose performance is called into question.

However, he said, there need to be firmer systems in place where parents can take a complaint and be confident it can be dealt with properly.

All procedures should be exhausted at school level before the Teaching Council can initiate a fitness-to-teach inquiry. Such inquiries may relate to professional performance, medical fitness, or teachers’ behaviour, with potential sanctions ranging from written admonishment to striking a teacher off the council’s register.

Mr Mooney said parents mostly want strong grievance procedures for local use in schools.

“There are voluntary ones there at the moment, but they should be statutory. I’d like to see them enacted, and I don’t know why they haven’t been,” he said.

Provision was made in the 1998 Education Act for ministerial regulations to introduce procedures that schools should follow to deal with parents’ complaints.

Although they have never been introduced, Education Minister Richard Bruton has committed to introduce a parents’ charter, first promised by previous education minister Ruairi Quinn more than two years ago.

“Early in the next Dáil term, the minister plans to seek Government approval for the drafting of principles which will form the framework of a parents’ and learners’ charter in every school,” said the Department of Education last night.

Announcing activation of the fitness-to-teach powers yesterday, Mr Bruton referred to his bill to regulate school admissions and Government support last week of Fine Gael TD Jim Daly’s bill to improve complaints procedures for parents.

Mr Mooney said a forum held for second-level parents last November was dominated by problems faced by families trying to resolve difficulties with their children’s teachers.

“The quality of teaching is very important, and parents are delighted with teachers in the majority of cases, but when it becomes an issue, it’s a big problem for children, because you’re talking about very formative years in their lives,” he said.

“I’m very pleased that there’s now a fitness-to-teach system, but it would be better to deal with things locally in the first case. There should be good procedures in place for parents, who need to know the pathway for dealing with these issues.”

Where the Teaching Council decides that a complaint merits a fitness-to-teach inquiry, the ultimate sanction will be to strike a teacher off the council’s register. This will, effectively, disbar them from teaching in a publicly-funded school, as anyone not on the register cannot be paid for teaching work.

This latter stipulation has only taken effect in the past three years. There are 93,000 teachers on the register. While legislation facilitating fitness-to-teach inquiries was passed in 2001, the delay in making registration mandatory held up its introduction until now.

Teacher unions have generally welcomed the fitness-to-teach system, but have some concerns about public hearings. An inquiry can lead to a teacher being required to undergo professional development, or to receive a written censure, but sanctions affecting a teacher’s registration can be appealed to the High Court.

Q&A - Who can make a complaint, and how to go about it

As 93,000 teachers come under fitness-to-teach mechanisms, here are answers to questions you might have about the process.

Who can make a complaint to the Teaching Council?

Parents, colleagues, students, or school management can refer a complaint to the Teaching Council. But so can a member of the public, even if they do not have to have any relationship with the teacher or their school.

Can I only complain if I think a teacher is not very good at their job?

No, there are a number of headings under which complaints can be made, which do include professional incompetence. This, along with professional misconduct and medical fitness, are likely to be the more common subjects of complaints. But a teacher can be subject of an investigation and possible inquiry regarding a conviction for an offence that might make them unsuitable to working with young people or vulnerable adults.

Can a complaint be about something a teacher does outside of school?

Yes, but only in relation to alleged conduct of such serious nature as to bring the profession into disrepute. The Teaching Council’s code of professional conduct includes stipulations about inappropriate communication with students, parents, or colleagues, including on social media, and about having inappropriate material or images, at school or elsewhere.

How can I go about making a complaint?

A complaint form on the Teaching Council website offers a guide to the information which should be provided. This includes details of where and when something has happened, or numerous dates if it relates to continuous behaviour or poor professional practice. You must also provide details of any complaint made to the school and how it was dealt with.

I have a concern about a teacher, but I do not want it to affect my son or daughter at school.

Can I complain without providing my own details?

No, anonymous complaints will not be considered. The law requires the Teaching Council to have all complaints in writing and signed by the person bringing a complaint.

So what happens when a complaint is made?

The Teaching Council first must ensure that it is not vexatious or frivolous. The council’s investigations committee then decides if a complaint is serious enough to sanction a fitness-to-teach inquiry, and may seek information from the person who has made the complaint, the teacher concerned, school authorities or other third parties.

Who will then conduct any inquiry?

The Teaching Council’s disciplinary committee will appoint a panel of three to five of its members to hold an inquiry. The majority will be in the teaching profession.

Will all inquiries be held in public?

It is intended that they would be, but exceptions can be made in relation to part of proceedings, in order to allow minors give evidence, or for details of medical records to be discussed. Otherwise, hearings may be conducted in public and details reported in the media.


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