Delays to plans for fitness to teach hearings for school teachers

Long-promised fitness-to-teach hearings for school teachers could be delayed yet again as the 14-year-old plan hits a legislative logjam.

Officials are scrambling to find a way to bring in the procedures without waiting for legal changes which are running out of time as the Government term nears its end.

Fitness to practice proceedings for teachers were provided for in the Teaching Council Act of 2001 but not commenced, mainly because of wrangling with unions.

Agreement was reached last year and the Teaching Council (Amendment) Act was enacted but with just weeks left in the life of the Government, two related pieces of law have to be amended before the measures get the green light.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation claimed there was a lack of political urgency.

“The longer it drags on, there is a lack of credibility with the whole process,” said assistant general secretary, Peter Mullan.

“The whole idea is to regulate the profession and give the public confidence in the profession and the longer that it drags on, through no fault of teachers or the Teaching Council, it undermines that confidence.”

The hold-up is due to legal advice that fitness to teach cannot begin without laws on Garda vetting of people working with children and vulnerable people.

A potential conflict was found between the National Vetting Bureau Act and the Spent Convictions Bill which is intended to give people convicted of some offences in the past a clean sheet when applying for jobs.

Amendments had to be drawn up for both the act and the bill to make clear there were no concessions for prosecutions or offences against children.

The Department of Justice said the Spent Convictions Bill was scheduled to return to committee stage in the Dáil on January 27.

“The minister hopes to complete the enactment of the bill during the current session of the Oireachtas with a view to commencing the act as soon as possible,” it said.

That would enable amendments to be made to the Vetting Act which in turn would remove the last obstacle from commencing the Teaching Council Act.

But with time running out, the Department of Education is understood to have called in lawyers to try to find a way around the hold-up. The department could not give a target date when fitness-to-teach procedures would be in place but said only it was intended to finalise matters “as soon as possible”.

The Children’s Ombudsman has said almost half the complaints he receives relate to education and that fitness hearings needed to be introduced urgently to improve accountability in schools.

However, secondary teachers unions said teachers could already be disciplined, suspended or sacked under procedures in place in individual schools. The TUI and ASTI said while they accepted the fitness-to-teach plans, pupils and parents should not feel that their complaints would not be taken seriously if they raised them locally.

In the meantime, the current membership of the Teaching Council, who have received extensive training in preparation for investigating fitness to practice complaints — including attending hearings abroad and holding mock hearings here — must be replaced as their four-year term of office ends in March. So even if the legal obstacles can be cleared swiftly, a team will not be in place to undertake investigations until a fresh round of training is completed.

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