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First 'fitness to teach' hearing due to take place next week

About 25 complaints are currently being considered by the Teaching Council.

THE FIRST FORMAL disciplinary hearing against a teacher in Ireland is due to be held next week.

Legislation dealing with fitness to teach measures were formally commenced by Minister for Education Richard Bruton in July 2016.

Since then, in the region 50 complaints have been made to the Teaching Council. Of these, about half were dismissed while the remaining cases are still being considered.

The case due to be heard at the Teaching Council’s headquarters in Maynooth, Co Kildare on Wednesday and Thursday next week is the first case to reach this stage. No details of the case have been made public.

The fitness to teach process is similar to disciplinary procedures in place for the nursing and medical professions.

The grounds for making a complaint against a teacher (both primary and secondary) include:

  • Professional misconduct
  • Poor professional performance
  • Engaging in conduct contrary to the Code of Professional Conduct
  • Being medically unfit to teach
  • A conviction for indictable offences

Any person, including members of the public, employers and other teachers, may make a complaint about a registered teacher. Complaints cannot be made anonymously.

Some 97,700 teachers are on the Teaching Council’s register. Teachers must be registered in order to teach in State-funded positions.

Accepting or dismissing a complaint 

When the council receives a complaint, it initially goes to the director and relevant staff. The director will review the complaint and can refuse the complaint if:

  • It is not in writing, signed and accompanied by relevant documents and information
  • It is considered to be frivolous, vexatious, made in bad faith or an abuse of the process

If the director refuses the complaint, this decision can be appealed to the council’s investigating committee (which is made up of 11 members, mainly teachers). The director can themselves also refer the complaint to the committee.

The committee has statutory authority to request information, reports and submissions, including in relation to medical matters. The committee can either refer all or part of the complaint to the council’s disciplinary committee for an inquiry or decide that no further action is required.

If the investigating committee decides that no further action is required, this cannot be appealed. The teacher will be notified once a complaint has been received about them.

Retrospective complaints – that is cases which are said to have occurred before the relevant legisaltion was enacted – may be considered in the following limited circumstances:

  • If it relates to conduct that would have constituted a criminal offence when it occurred
  • If it gives rise to a genuine concern that a teacher may harm or pose a risk to a child or vulnerable person

The inquiry process

In most cases, an inquiry will take the form of an oral hearing before a panel of the disciplinary committee. It is similar to a hearing before a court or a tribunal and witnesses will give evidence under oath.

However, the teacher can ask that the inquiry take place by an examination of the relevant documents and written submissions rather than as an oral hearing. The committee will decide on the best way to proceed.

Oral hearings will take place in public unless the teacher or a witness requests the panel holds the hearing or part of the hearing in private, and the panel is satisfied that it would be appropriate to do so. If a hearing is held in public, the panel may keep the identity of the people involved, including the teacher, confidential – naming them as ‘Teacher A’ etc.

In most cases, minors are likely to be key witnesses. The panel overseeing the hearing will consist of three to five committee members.

The panel may decide to:

  • Apply no sanction
  • Advise, admonish or censure the teacher
  • Apply conditions to the teacher’s registration
  • Suspend the teacher from the Register of Teachers for up to two years
  • Remove the teacher from the Register of Teachers for a specified period of time (in very serious cases this could effectively stop the person from ever teaching again – for example, if they are removed from the register for 40 years)

A complaint would have be proven beyond any reasonable doubt, making the threshold higher than in the UK – where a decision is based on the balance of probabilities.

The teacher may appeal the panel’s sanctions to the High Court. The council will publish the final decision in the case once any such appeal has been completed, and/or it deems it to be in the public interest.

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