I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the House on the Second Stage of the Teaching Council (Amendment) Bill 2015. Before I turn to a more detailed explanation of the provisions of the Bill, I will explain its background and purpose. It caters for two overarching aims: underpinning the central role of the Teaching Council in the forthcoming statutory vetting arrangements for registered teachers, and amending and strengthening the statutory provisions relating to the Teaching Council's fitness to teach function.
On the Garda vetting of teachers, we are all agreed on how important it is that teachers be vetted. The existing Garda vetting arrangements for the schools sector operate on a non-statutory basis and have been in place for new employees since 2006. Under these existing vetting arrangements, the Teaching Council is the registered organisation that liaises with the Garda Central Vetting Unit, GCVU, for the vetting of teachers and acts as a conduit for the approximately 3,500 individual recognised schools and education and training boards, ETBs, that employ registered teachers.
The Teaching Council plays a vital part in the State's overall child protection infrastructure for schools because it has the capacity to ensure any person it deems not suitable to teach will not be registered as a teacher. This Bill will underpin and strengthen this capacity and in doing so will ensure, in tandem with the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 provisions, that the vetting of all registered teachers, on an ongoing basis, will be provided for and carried out on a statutory basis.
The Bill, which is intended to be aligned with the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act, will make it more efficient for schools to meet the vetting requirements of that Act when it is commenced. The provisions in the Bill will help improve the workability of the vetting arrangements for schools and ETBs by enabling them to receive vetting disclosures in a streamlined, secure and timely manner through the Teaching Council's electronic register of teachers.
The number of teachers vetted under the non-statutory arrangements continues to increase steadily, with about 54,000 of the 90,000 teachers on the Teaching Council register now vetted. The remaining 36,000 who have not yet been vetted are typically permanent teachers who have been in the same school since the period prior to the introduction of vetting in 2006. I consider it very important that such teachers would be vetted under the forthcoming statutory vetting arrangements, for two reasons. First, the forthcoming statutory arrangements under the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 will include a check for both criminal offences and also any relevant "soft information", which is an important new element of the vetting procedures. Second, when this Bill is enacted, there will be a clear statutory basis for the Teaching Council to require such teachers to undergo vetting and for it to deal with any adverse vetting disclosure that might be received.
Removing a teacher from the Teaching Council register is the best way of achieving child protection across all recognised schools. Both the Teaching Council and I are mindful of the need to ensure all registered teachers are vetted, and I am aware that it is the council's intention to prioritise this work in the year after enactment of this legislation. What is important is that this Bill provides that renewal of a teacher's registration will be linked with compliance with the Bill's vetting requirements. The Bill also ensures there will be a robust statutory basis for the Teaching Council to consider, in the case of any teacher who is the subject of an adverse vetting disclosure, whether the teacher's registration should be renewed.
This Bill will prepare the ground for the commencement, for the first time, of fitness-to-practice procedures for the teaching profession. This is a key part of any professional regulatory system. The enhanced measures now being put in place will help to ensure high quality standards of teaching can be upheld by the council through the operation of fair, robust and effective fitness to teach processes. This Bill provides for a number of changes to the fitness to teach provisions of the Teaching Council Act before their commencement in order that the Teaching Council can undertake this important regulatory role in an effective manner and that the fitness to teach provisions are updated to take account of the new statutory vetting arrangements.
The purpose of the council's fitness to teach role is to uphold standards and protect children. Robust procedures, which are transparent and fair, will underpin the council's work. When these provisions are commenced, any person, including members of the public, employers, other teachers or the Teaching Council itself, will be able to make a complaint about a registered teacher. Issues of sufficient gravity will result in an inquiry. The council will have the capacity to remove a teacher from the register where it deems the person unfit to teach, including where this is for child protection reasons. This Bill will also improve the capacity of the Teaching Council to deal with complaints that indicate a risk of harm to a child or vulnerable adult by empowering it to seek a vetting disclosure in respect of the teacher concerned as part of a fitness to teach inquiry. It is important to bear in mind, however, that the fitness to teach function will also serve to identify areas where teachers can take action to address underperformance or conduct issues. It is also important to note that these processes will not displace the existing disciplinary procedures available to employers at school level. Such procedures will normally be completed before the Teaching Council conducts an inquiry, and in many cases it would be expected that the matter would be resolved at school level.
Fitness to teach hearings should be held in public by default, mirroring recent legislation for other professional regulators, specifically the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland and the Medical Council. Public fitness to teach hearings are also the practice internationally, including in England, Scotland, Wales, New Zealand and Ontario, some of which have similar education systems to our own. In reaching my decision on this aspect of the Bill, I was conscious that a balance must be struck between the rights of individuals, both teachers and other parties to complaints, and the requirement that transparent and fair arrangements be in place such that the wider public can have confidence in both these arrangements and their outcomes. The drafting of the fitness to teach provisions of the Bill has taken account of approaches taken by other regulators, both local and international, in addition to relevant case law. In this way, it is intended that a framework will be created that meets the public interest while also being fair to all.
I understand the concerns teachers may have about public fitness to teach hearings. My officials have been in dialogue with the teacher unions on this aspect of the Bill and I am grateful for the exchange of views in that context. I recognise that there may be circumstances where it is appropriate for hearings, or parts of hearings, to be held in private. Accordingly, I will be bringing forward an amendment to provide that the disciplinary committee, having considered the request of a teacher or a witness and where it considers there is "reasonable and sufficient cause", may hold all or part of a hearing in private. It is important to be aware that no case will proceed to a hearing without going through several stages designed to exclude less serious complaints that would not merit a full disciplinary inquiry.
I will outline to the House the details of these stages. First, the Teaching Council's director will screen complaints and reject those deemed to be vexatious, frivolous, made in bad faith or an abuse of process. If a complaint progresses, it will be considered by the investigating committee which must, following its inquiry, decide if there is a prima facie case to warrant further action being taken before the complaint is sent to the disciplinary committee. At that stage, the disciplinary committee may hold an inquiry. A panel consisting of three to five members of the disciplinary committee will be formed for the purposes of an inquiry and the majority of the panel must be teachers.
Under the current Act, there is provision for an inquiry to be held on the basis of an examination of documents, which might be appropriate in some cases, and it is intended that this provision will be retained. Given what I have said, only a small number of complaints will progress to a hearing, while a smaller number again will result in hearings being held in public.
The overall approach will have regard to long-standing principles of natural justice in respect of individuals' rights, rights such as the safeguarding of minors or vulnerable adults, the protection of private lives and professional reputation, and privacy concerning medical issues. I am satisfied that this is the appropriate approach to take. I also plan to include express provision that the registered teacher who is the subject of the hearing is entitled to be represented at the hearing and will be furnished in advance with information on evidence in support of the complaint.
As well as the conduct of hearings in public, I will provide for the publication by the council of the outcome of disciplinary hearings where it is in the public interest to do so and the notification of findings against a teacher to regulators outside the State, where appropriate. This and other provisions are in keeping with the arrangements applying to other professional regulators and the legal provisions will be similar to those already in place. I intend to commence the fitness to teach provisions as early as possible after enactment of the Bill.
The Bill, as passed by the Dáil, has 24 sections which I will outline in more detail. Sections 1 and 2 are concerned with definitions and interpretations relevant to the Bill.
Section 3 amends the functions of the Teaching Council to provide that in addition to the functions specified in the existing Act, it will be a function of the council to obtain or receive vetting disclosures for the purposes set out in the Bill for the purpose of its role as a relevant organisation, as defined in the National Vetting Bureau Act 2012, or for the purpose of its role as a relevant organisation in representing another relevant organisation under the National Vetting Bureau Act 2012. This provision makes it clear that the council may seek vetting disclosures for the purposes of the registration and fitness to teach provisions of the Bill and ensures its role as a conduit for schools and ETBs in the forthcoming statutory vetting arrangements is given statutory underpinning. The section also amends the functions to provide that the council shall in the performance of its functions under the Act have regard to the need to protect children and vulnerable adults.
Section 4 amends section 8 of the Act to update, reflecting recent institutional changes, the bodies providing primary and post-primary initial teacher education which nominate persons for appointment to the council.
Section 5 provides that the information to be entered in the register on a registered teacher, as prescribed by the Teaching Council, shall, in addition to existing information, include whether the registration is subject to conditions set at initial registration stage or at renewal of registration stage and the information disclosed by the most recent vetting disclosure in the possession of the council on the person. This amendment will enable the council to provide a streamlined electronic mechanism to enable a school employer to access the vetting disclosure electronically in respect of a teacher it intends to employ. This approach facilitates a centralised and accessible mechanism for school-ETB employers to receive disclosures on teachers via the register and in compliance with the National Vetting Bureau Act 2012. It is important to note that records held electronically by the council will not be accessible, other than to an employer for the purposes of obtaining a disclosure under the National Vetting Bureau Act and in such circumstances only with the consent and knowledge of the teacher in question and in compliance with data protection legislation. The section also clarifies that the existing provisions of the Act which relate to publishing the register, making it available for inspection and providing for a copy of an entry or extract to be made available on request are subject to any enactment or rule of law which would prohibit the disclosure of such information.
Section 6 updates section 30 of the 2001 Act. The existing section 30 provides that a person employed as a teacher in a recognised school shall not be remunerated out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas where he or she is not a registered teacher or where he or she is removed or suspended from the register. Section 6 substitutes the existing section 30 of the Act and updates the existing wording to cross-reference an amendment made to the Education Act 1998 under the Education (Amendment) Act 2012 that makes provision for the employment in certain exceptional and limited circumstances of persons who are not registered teachers and amendments being made under the Bill to sections 44 and 47 of the Act which I will outline.
Section 7 amends section 31 of the 2001 Act to make it mandatory for the Teaching Council to obtain and consider a vetting disclosure before initially putting a teacher on the register. This is already the practice of the council on an administrative basis since Garda vetting was introduced in September 2006. The Bill makes statutory provision for vetting disclosures from the bureau to be assessed for all new applicants for registration. It provides for the council to consider a vetting disclosure to determine if a person is a fit and proper person to be admitted to the register and that the council shall refuse registration where the person has not consented to vetting or where the council, in accordance with the section, is not satisfied that the person is a fit and proper person to be registered. It also provides for a revised text relating to the powers of the council to make regulations in respect of initial registration. The section also makes some technical amendments to the existing provisions which provide for the council to refuse to register a person where he or she stands removed or suspended from the register and for the council to register a person with conditions.
Section 8 makes provision for transitional arrangements to deal with applications for registration received prior to the coming into operation of section 7.
Section 9 places a requirement on a person to provide his or her consent to vetting at initial registration stage or where he or she is requested by the Teaching Council to do so for the purposes of renewal of his or her registration.
Section 10 provides that where a teacher's initial registration is subject to conditions that have been applied by the High Court following an appeal, the teacher shall be removed from the register where he or she fails to comply with any of these conditions.
Section 11 amends section 33 to provide for revised text relating to the powers of the Teaching Council to make regulations for the purpose of renewal of registration which shall, inter alia, provide for the form and manner of an application for renewal of registration and the documentary and other evidence that the Teaching Council may seek to enable it to be satisfied that a person is a fit and proper person to have his or her registration renewed.
The section also makes provision for retrospective vetting and re-vetting arrangements for registered teachers in the context of renewal of their registration. It is aimed at ensuring all registered teachers who have never been vetted will be vetted and provision is made for periodic re-vetting of registered teachers on an ongoing basis. It is not intended that all 90,000 registered teachers will be vetted on each annual renewal of registration. The section allows the council to plan and undertake such vetting in a structured and phased manner and sets out what it will have regard to when considering whether to seek a vetting disclosure in respect of a teacher for renewal of his or her registration. In that regard, the section will enable the council to prioritise the vetting of those teachers who were never vetted under the non-statutory arrangements and to subsequently address those who have been vetted under the existing non-statutory arrangements but who have not been vetted under the new statutory vetting arrangements and to provide thereafter for periodic re-vetting of all registered teachers to be undertaken on an ongoing basis.
The section also contains provisions relating to the Teaching Council giving written notice to a teacher where it intends to seek a vetting disclosure as part of renewal of registration. The section outlines when the council shall refuse to renew a teacher's registration such as where a teacher has failed to comply with a vetting request within the required timeframe and it has not been in a position to determine if he or she is a fit and proper person to have his or her registration renewed. The section also provides that a teacher may within 21 days apply to the High Court for an annulment of a decision by the council to refuse to renew his or her registration or to renew it subject to conditions. This amendment will bring the renewal stage of the registration process into line with other stages of the registration process where such an appeal mechanism is already in place such as at initial registration stage or in the case of removal from the register following an inquiry under the fitness to teach procedures.
Section 12 inserts a new section 33A in the principal Act and provides that, where a teacher's registration is renewed subject to conditions, the teacher can apply to the council for an extension to the period within which the conditions must be complied with, and that the council has discretion on whether to agree to such an extension. It also provides that where conditions set by the council, or the High Court where relevant, are not complied with the teacher will be removed from the register. These provisions for renewal stage mirror the arrangements already in place in section 32 for initial registration stage, to deal with an extension of the period within which to comply with conditions or removal from the register if conditions are not met.
Section 13 is by way of a technical amendment to provide that where, prior to section 11 of the Bill coming into operation, the period for compliance with a condition imposed at initial registration exceeded the period of that initial registration and that person's registration is subsequently renewed, that renewed registration will be subject to the original condition for any remaining outstanding period for compliance. Section 14 amends section 34 of the 2001 Act. Section 34 of the 2001 Act allows for a notice period of one month following the expiry of a teacher's registration to be provided to a teacher who fails to apply for renewal and for that teacher to be removed from the register at the end of that month, unless he or she has applied for renewal and paid the relevant renewal fee to the council within that one-month period.
Section 14 amends section 34 of the 2001 Act to provide that in the case of a teacher who is required to comply with a vetting requirement at renewal of registration, this notice period provision will apply only where he or she has complied with those vetting requirements. The existing section 34 also requires that where an application has been made for inquiry under Part 5 of the Act, dealing with fitness to teach, and that person fails to apply for renewal of registration, the person shall not be removed from the register until such time as that inquiry is completed. This provision, along with a number of others, is also being amended to be consistent with changes being made to the wording of Part 5, for example changing the wording from "application" to "complaint" and "applicant" to "complainant" etc., and to make specific reference to the various provisions of Part 5 under which a fitness to teach process can reach conclusion. Similarly, section 15 simply amends the wording of section 35 to be consistent with other changes being made to wording and to make specific reference to the various provisions of Part 5 under which a fitness to teach process can reach conclusion.
Section 16 amends Section 42 of the 2001 Act. That section sets out the procedures for complaints against teachers and the role and processes to be followed by the director and the investigating committee in respect of such complaints. Section 16 is necessarily detailed so as to set out clearly the powers and procedures applicable at the preliminary stages in the fitness to teach process, including in relation to the treatment of vetting disclosures. It amends section 42 of the 2001 Act to outline a range of matters which may be the subject of a complaint against a teacher, such as contravention of education legislation, professional misconduct, poor professional performance, conduct contrary to the code of professional conduct for teachers, erroneous or fraudulent registration, medical unfitness, or convictions for an offence triable on indictment.
Under this section, the council may make a complaint in relation to a registered teacher on the ground that the information disclosed in a vetting disclosure, which has been received by the council in its conduit role for schools and ETBs, is of such a nature as to reasonably give rise to a bona fide concern that the teacher may harm or attempt to harm any child or vulnerable person, cause any child or vulnerable person to or be harmed or put any child or vulnerable person at risk of harm. The director will have a role in screening complaints received by the council. Where the director refuses to refer a complaint to the investigating committee, the director's decision can be appealed directly to the investigating committee by the complainant.
This section of the Bill also provides, where the investigating committee decides to hold an inquiry and the nature of the complaint raises a bona fide concern of harm, that the committee shall request the council to apply to the National Vetting Bureau for a vetting disclosure in respect of the teacher for the purposes of considering the conduct alleged in the complaint. Where the investigating committee receives a vetting disclosure the teacher concerned shall be provided with a copy of the disclosure and invited to make submissions.
Provision is also made for the employer, where the employer is known to the council, to be informed as soon as possible where on foot of a complaint there is a bona fide concern that the teacher may harm or attempt to harm any child or vulnerable person, cause any child or vulnerable person to be harmed, put any child or vulnerable person at risk of harm or incite another person to harm any child or vulnerable person. This section outlines the areas for complaint which can be considered following the coming into operation of this part of the Act, notwithstanding that the conduct in question occurred prior to its coming into operation. It also makes clear what information and documents the investigating committee may require or request from relevant parties including the complainant, the teacher, the school or schools where the teacher is or was employed, or other parties.
The section introduces a threshold to be reached before the investigating committee will refer a case to the next stage of the process. That threshold is that the investigating committee must be of the opinion that there is a prima facie case to warrant further action. This will ensure that only cases that merit a disciplinary inquiry and hearing will be progressed to that stage. This section also includes a definition of "document" to ensure that digital documents or photographs, for example, can be sought by the investigating committee.
Section 17 amends section 43 of the 2001 Act. Section 43 deals with inquiries of the disciplinary committee, following referral of a complaint by the investigating committee. Section 17 amends section 43 to outline the steps to be taken by the disciplinary committee and its panels, including the matters to be specified in inquiry reports, which are: the nature of the complaint; the evidence laid before the panel; the panel's findings; the relevance of the findings to fitness to teach where the complaint related to a conviction; and any other matter the panel considers appropriate.
Where the inquiry was conducted in relation to a complaint made by the council on foot of information in a vetting disclosure it received in its conduit role for a school or ETB employer and the panel, having regard to the protection of children and vulnerable persons, is satisfied that there is a risk that the person may harm or attempt to harm any child or vulnerable person, cause any child or vulnerable person to be harmed, put any child or vulnerable person at risk of harm or incite another person to harm any child or vulnerable person, the panel's report must specify the nature of the information disclosed in the vetting disclosure, the evidence laid before the panel and its assessment of and conclusion in respect of the risk. The Bill also makes provision for the panel to dismiss the complaint where it makes no finding against the teacher.
Section 18 amends section 44 of the 2001 Act to add a new sanction "to advise, admonish, or censure the registered teacher in writing" to the range of sanctions already provided for, which include, for example, removal or suspension from the register or retention subject to conditions. It outlines that an adverse decision of the disciplinary committee, other than a decision to advise, admonish, or censure in writing, may be appealed to the High Court. It also provides for references to the Supreme Court to be replaced with references to the Court of Appeal and that, where following an appeal to the High Court, a teacher is suspended or removed from the register and leave is granted to appeal to the Court of Appeal, the relevant court shall, where the teacher is employed as a teacher in a recognised school, make a direction as to whether the teacher shall continue to be paid pursuant to his or her contract of employment out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas.
Section 19 amends section 45 to provide that where a registered teacher fails to comply with a condition imposed by the High Court on appeal, he or she shall be removed from the register. Section 20 amends section 47 to provide that the High Court, where it is has ordered that a teacher's registration be suspended, shall also, where the teacher is employed in a recognised school, make a direction on whether the teacher shall continue to be paid pursuant to his or her contract of employment, out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas.
Section 21 amends schedule 3 of the 2001 Act to ensure consistency with the wording of section 42 and for the same definition of "document" to be included. It also makes provision to ensure there is a lawful basis for a vetting disclosure obtained by the investigating committee to be provided to and considered by the disciplinary panel appointed to deal with the complaint in question and to allow the panel to request a vetting disclosure where one has not previously been obtained and where the panel considers that the complaint gives rise to a bona fide harm concern.
Section 22 provides for section 24(7)(b) of the Education Act 1998, as amended by section 6 of the Education (Amendment) Act 2012, to be amended to clarify the type of information relating to the registration status of teachers that the Teaching Council is required, under section 24 of the 1998 Act, to provide to the Minister or an education and training board, such as where a teacher has been removed from the register following a fitness to teach process.
Section 23 provides for the repeal of section 41 of the Act, reflecting some restructuring of the fitness to teach provisions to bring them more in line with more recent statutes.
Section 24 provides for the Short Title of the Bill, for the collective citation of the Teaching Council Acts and the Education Acts and for standard provisions relating to commencement of the Bill.
I inform the House that during the passage of the Bill I intend to introduce an amendment to provide for fitness to teach hearings to be held in public as the default position, while providing for exceptions where necessary to protect the rights of individuals. My officials will consult the Teaching Council on the factors that could be considered in such cases. This will ensure the new fitness to teach framework will mirror best practice as regards disciplinary hearings for other professional bodies. The changes being brought forward will make a very significant contribution to safeguarding children in schools and upholding the high standards of teaching that students and society expect and deserve. I commend the Bill to the House.