I am pleased to bring the Teaching Council (Amendment) Bill 2006 to the House on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, who is currently on official business in China. I am aware from talking to the Minister that she would have been keen to have steered the Bill in this House.
As Senators are aware, the Bill passed all of its Stages in Dáil Éireann last week and the Minister is grateful for the time allocated to the Bill at what has been relatively short notice. The Bill is very short and consists of a number of amendments to the Teaching Council Act of 2001. The amendments are of a technical nature, which are designed to cover a legislative lacuna regarding the teaching council. This lacuna became apparent only recently and it is wished to resolve the position as soon as possible.
The legislative lacuna concerns a technical issue relating to the first elections to the council which were held in 2004. Under the Teaching Council Act, 16 of the teaching council's overall membership of 37 were elected directly by teachers, either employed in or qualified to teach in primary or post-primary schools recognised by my Department. Nine of the 16 elected teachers are elected from the primary sector and the remaining seven are elected from the post-primary sector. Of the remaining 21 members, 16 were nominated by the education sector partners — trade unions, school management bodies, parents' organisations and third level institutions. The Minister makes five direct appointments. As is normal practice, all members of the council ultimately hold their appointments from the Minister for Education and Science.
The Teaching Council Act of 2001 provides that the first elections had to be held under regulations made by the Minister for Education and Science. In accordance with the provisions of the legislation, the regulations, which are known as the Teaching Council (First Election of Members) Regulations 2004, SI 916 of 2004, were signed into law on 10 September 2004 by the then Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey. While the elections were held under the required regulations and these regulations were, in turn, made in accordance with the Teaching Council Act, it became apparent recently that the relevant provisions of the Act were not commenced when the regulations were made, thus raising a potential question about the legal basis for the elections. This is the lacuna to which I referred.
The amendments covered by this Bill retrospectively validate the power to make these regulations, thus ensuring there can be no question about whether the elections were held in accordance with the Teaching Council Act. The basis of any regulation is in the parent statute and the relevant provision of the parent statute was not commenced when the regulations were made. Given that the overall membership of the council is closely linked with the elections, these amendments will also ensure there can be no issues in relation to the nominations and appointments to the council. In essence, retrospective validity is sought to be given to the transactions and membership of the council. There can be no question about the lawfulness of the council's membership regardless of whether the members are elected, nominated or appointed.
The legal lacuna addressed by the terms of this Bill does not have any impact upon the work of the teaching council. The Minister launched the Council almost a year ago, on 28 February 2005, in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham unaware of the illusory basis of the existence of the entity. Its members were, therefore, in a position to undertake the necessary preparatory work in advance of its formal establishment. This is normal practice for bodies of this nature which, in effect, have a two tier approach to their commencement, namely, an initial preparatory stage and the actual legal commencement of operations in accordance with their governing legislation.
The Teaching Council Act provides that the council cannot have any legal standing until its formal establishment day, on which it formally and legally commences its operations. After the establishment day the council must be in a position to be able to fully commence its work so there can be no lead-in or transitional period. This is the reason the Minister, in line with the Teaching Council Act, launched the council in February 2005 leaving a significant amount of time for preparation work.
The lack of legal status for the council until establishment day also means its members will have to be reconfirmed in their appointments once the council has been formally established. This process is normal for statutory bodies of this nature, such as the National Council for Special Education, NCSE. Therefore, while the members to the council were elected, nominated and appointed for the launch date of 28 February 2005, they will not become actual legally appointed members until the council's establishment day.
At the launch of the council in February 2005, the Minister for Education and Science indicated her wish that its establishment day should occur in March this year. Having spoken to the Minister, she has informed me that it is her intention, following consultation with the council, to confirm the precise date over the coming weeks. At this stage I am pleased the Minister's deadline will be met.
Although the council does not have a legal status at present, since its launch in February 2005 it has undertaken a great deal of preparatory work in order that it can fully meet its obligations after establishment day. This preparatory work is part of the normal prudential process to ensure State bodies similar to the council are fully able to discharge their statutory functions from day one of their legal existence.
Under the able leadership of its chairperson, Ms Joan Ward, and director, Ms Aine Lawlor, the council has completed most of its initial start-up administrative tasks and has recruited staff and secured an office premises. The three statutory committees and three standing committees of the council have been established on an informal basis and the members of each have been working very hard over the past six months on their respective areas of responsibility in order that their preparatory work will be well advanced prior to the council's legal establishment. On behalf of the Minister, I thank all members of the council and its staff for their efforts in this regard.
One of the three standing committees, the registration committee, is in the final stages of completing the council's procedures for the registration of teachers and the recognition of teaching qualifications in order that the council can begin work on this important area immediately after its establishment day. Senators may be aware that some of this work is already being done by the Registration Council which will cease to exist on establishment day of the Teaching Council. The legislation then provides that this vital work will immediately be taken over by the council and this is why there can be no lead-in period or learning process for this work.
I take this opportunity to thank, on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science, the members of the Registration Council and its staff for the important and very complex work which they have undertaken in this area over the years. I would also pay tribute to the members of the inspectorate in the Department who performed a similar function regarding the primary sector as the Registration Council did for the post-primary sector. This work will also transfer to the Teaching Council on its establishment day.
Considerable work has been done by another standing committee, the education committee, on codes of professional conduct and practice for teachers, which are at draft stage and will be subject to a widespread consultation process later this year. The statutory investigating and disciplinary committees have also undertaken a large body of work into what will, undoubtedly, be difficult but important areas for the maintenance of standards for the teaching profession.
The Teaching Council Act sets out three wide-ranging and ambitious objectives for the council. In essence, and it is important that this message gets as wide a coverage as possible, the Teaching Council is concerned with teaching rather than the narrower focus upon teachers. Its objectives cover the regulation of the teaching profession and the professional conduct of teachers, in addition to initial teacher education and training, as well as the continuing education and training and professional development of teachers.
The council will have a strong developmental role in the education and development of teachers to ensure that we continue to maintain the current very good standards of our teachers and schools. Although the council will not merely be concentrating upon the professional conduct or competence of individual teachers, it is recognised that, for a minority of teachers, these may well be issues which need to be addressed. In this regard, the Teaching Council Act sets out the functions and powers of the council very clearly. It is important when dealing with such matters that they are approached with integrity, fairness and balance and I am confident that the council will do this.
Although the Minister is very pleased with the level of preparatory work undertaken in readiness for the full commencement of the council's functions after its establishment day, the council will face a number of challenges as it creates for itself a position of genuine respect and credibility on the Irish education landscape. As the regulatory body for the profession of teaching, the council has the very real potential to secure and enhance the status of this most vital profession in the eyes of people throughout the country. By meeting the challenge of acting as a focus for all that is best in the profession, the council will do much to diminish any concerns about the concept of self-regulation. We have been well served by teachers throughout the generations and it is right and proper that we entrust them now with a much greater say in the regulation of their own profession. I have no doubt that the council will rise to that challenge and, in doing so, ensure that the high standards achieved to date in regard to both teachers and teaching continue into the future. Molaim an Bille don Teach.