I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to introduce the Bill, which is extremely important for teachers, pupils, parents and the country as a whole. Its general aim is to provide for the establishment of standards, policies and procedures for the education and training of teachers, which will include a professional code of conduct. It will provide, in particular, for the establishment of a Teaching Council.
For our 44,000 teachers the Bill will afford them a significant degree of professional autonomy and self-regulation. It will also enhance the status and morale of the teaching profession and the quality of education provided. For students and their parents, the Bill will provide them with an assurance that the teachers who work with their children meet the highest standards of professional qualification and competence through a professional code of conduct. It will also provide parents with a clear and transparent course of action in the event of a teacher failing to meet these standards. For the country as a whole the Bill will copperfasten the already high standard of education provided, which has been and will continue to be so important to the economic and social development of the State.
Much work has been done on the establishment of a teaching council in Northern Ireland. The work we will do today will ensure teachers in Ireland, North and South, will move forward together. The establishment of teaching councils in both parts of Ireland will ensure that the high standards of teaching, North and South, of which we are so justly proud, will not only continue, but will be seen to continue.
Today marks a significant step towards the establishment of a Teaching Council in Ireland where teachers are among the most highly regarded of the professions. Like all professionals, they know what it is to face change in their lives and work. They know that they must adapt to these changes if they are to continue to provide a first class education for their students. The teaching profession has been to the forefront of change in education, not only reacting posi- tively to change, but also leading and driving it in all aspects of education.
The Bill will enhance further the status of teaching as a profession. The Teaching Council will play a central role in ensuring the high standards of teachers, and education will be sustained and strenghtened. The establishment of the council will allow teachers to undertake the functions necessary to ensure quality remains the hallmark of the teaching profession.
A professional council charged with maintaining and developing standards is a natural part of the maturing of any profession. We already have similar professional bodies in a number of areas, including the Medical Council and the Nursing Board. It is timely that teachers should have their own professional role formally recognised by the State in a Teaching Council. This will confirm the status of teachers, entitle them to regulate their own affairs and empower them with greater responsibility for the standards and quality of education.
I will go further. The establishment of an autonomous Teaching Council to be the voice of teachers on educational matters and to promote the highest possible standards of practice in our schools is fundamental to the growth and development of the teaching profession. As a means of consolidating past achievements and as a preparation for the challenges of the future, it is timely that a statutory council be established to protect and promote the status of teaching in society and the advancement of the profession.
The Bill represents the culmination of a process of consultation and deliberation which began two and a half years ago with the establishment of a steering committee in which teachers were centrally involved and which advised the Minister on the establishment of a Teaching Council. The steering committee's report was published in October 1998. The drafting of the Bill was based on its conclusions and recommendations, which were agreed by all involved. The establishment of a Teaching Council has long been advocated in a range of official reports, including the 1991 OECD report, Review of Irish Education, and the 1992 Green Paper, Education for a Changing World.
Teachers and the other partners in education have long sought the establishment of a Teaching Council. They believe, as I do, that the council will have a major role in recognising the contribution of teachers as professionals who possess the knowledge and expertise not only to shape the future of their profession but also to contribute effectively to the future direction of education policy. The council will be an independent statutory agency which will exercise the powers and perform the functions through which teachers can achieve a large degree of professional autonomy and self-regulation. The council will have a statutory role in the regulation of the teaching profession and the professional affairs of teachers and an advisory role in other matters.
Section 7 outlines the functions of the Teaching Council, which are to promote teaching as a profession; establish, review and maintain codes of professional conduct for teachers; establish and maintain a register of teachers; establish and promote standards in programmes of teacher education and training; promote the continuing education and training and professional development of teachers; conduct inquiries into and, where appropriate, impose sanctions in relation to the fitness to teach of teachers. The council will also conduct or commission research, represent the teaching profession on educational issues and provide advice for the Minister.
Section 8 provides for a broad representation of interests on the 37 member Teaching Council. As is the norm in the case of professional bodies, the majority of members will be drawn from the teaching profession and elected by practising teachers. It is important that the council should have access to expertise from areas outside of, but deeply interested in, the teaching profession. The steering committee, which was representative of the partners in education, recommended the composition outlined in the Bill. On its recommendation, the Bill provides for the representation of the teacher training colleges, parents' associations and management bodies on the council. I have also provided for five persons representative of outside interests to be appointed to the council, of which two – one each – will be nominated by the ICTU and IBEC. I am confident that the broad-based composition of the council will be an important factor in ensuring widespread support for the work of the council and its overall success in promoting best practice within the teaching profession.
The Teaching Council will have much to offer teachers. Working through the council, teachers will play a key part in the self-regulation and development of their profession. Within the framework provided by the council, teachers will be able to address issues of professional autonomy in the context of teaching.
Teachers' professional status and recognition will be enhanced greatly by many elements of the Bill, in particular the professional code of conduct provided for in section 6. While it will be the responsibility of the Teaching Council to draw up the code, I envisage that it will encompass a statement of professionalism agreed by all teachers. As far as individual teachers are concerned, being part of a recognised, collective professional identity with statutory authority will enhance their individual status and identity. The council will be the voice of teachers in promoting the profession of teaching through a celebration of achievements and raising public awareness of the way teachers work and the environment in which they work. An improved and widely promoted image of the profession will benefit teachers of today and encourage new entrants for the future. The Teaching Council will play an important part also in ensuring the in-career professional develop ment of teachers remains relevant to their short-term and long-term needs.
The Teaching Council will advise the Minister in relation to standards for entry into programmes of teacher education and training, and teacher supply. The council's role will be to ensure the professional needs of teachers and the teaching profession are recognised when policy decisions are taken in these key areas. With the new professional image provided by the Teaching Council, teachers will be better placed to have an input into policy development.
The role of the Teaching Council in representing teachers is distinct from the role of the teacher unions. While there are many areas of common interest to the Teaching Council and the teacher unions, there is a fundamental difference between their roles. The Teaching Council will be concerned with promoting and maintaining the highest standards within the teaching profession. Negotiations on conditions of service, salaries and pensions will remain the preserve of the teaching unions. There is no contradiction in this arrangement; the work of the two bodies will complement each other.
In common with most self-regulated professions, the Teaching Council will establish and maintain a register of its members. This is provided for under section 30. The register of teachers will function as the main regulatory instrument of the Teaching Council. It will stand as a verifiable expression of the standard of teaching, knowledge, skill and competence that teachers aspire to have and maintain.
Section 30 also provides for the Teaching Council to decide the information to be held on the register. This will include specified details for each registered teacher, including the findings of any disciplinary proceedings and the period for which such information will remain on the register. The council will publish the register and make it available for inspection in such form and manner as it considers appropriate.
To be registered, a teacher must have attained a satisfactory level of professional qualification and training. Thus, the register will effectively act as a statement of the standards required of teachers. Only persons who reach these standards will be able to work as teachers in State funded positions. Following the initial period of registration, teachers will renew their registration annually. As Deputies are aware, there are highly experienced people who have worked for many years in education who are not formally recognised as teachers and who will now be required to comply with the requirement to register under the Bill. The contribution of these people has to be given due recognition and I will bring forward an amendment on Committee Stage to address this issue.
For parents, the Teaching Council will provide an assurance that teachers who work with their children have been recognised as meeting the highest standards of professional qualification and competence. Where parents have concerns regarding their children's teacher, there will be a clear and transparent course of action available to them, with procedures to safeguard the rights and duties of all parties, and with appropriate remedies where such are found to be needed. If setting and maintaining standards by the Teaching Council, acting on behalf of the teaching profession, is to have any meaning, then the council must have power to act in the event of a teacher failing, for whatever reason, to reach these standards. Thus, a procedure for dealing with complaints against a teacher is set out in section 40.
Essentially, two committees will deal with complaints, the investigating committee and the disciplinary committee. These committees will be empowered to investigate and adjudicate on complaints where it is alleged that teachers have failed to meet acceptable standards of practice. The members of the investigating committee and the disciplinary committee will be drawn from the membership of the Teaching Council as laid down in sections 26 and 27. The committees will operate under procedures drawn up by the council. These procedures will be developed to protect the rights of all concerned. In particular, any teacher against whom a complaint is made will have his or her rights to due process fully observed, and a teacher's right of recourse to the courts will not be impinged.
Section 43 provides the Teaching Council with a range of remedies in the event of a teacher being found unsatisfactory, following the procedures I have just outlined. For example, a teacher may be retained on the register, subject to some conditions. The conditions are intended to assist the teacher to overcome the difficulties he or she is encountering and include referral to the teacher welfare service or to a relevant professional development course. In other cases, teachers may be suspended from the register for a period. In a very serious case, a teacher may be removed from the register. Removal from the register is obviously a very serious matter for the teacher concerned. In recognition of the very serious consequences of de-registration, any such decision by the council will require the assent of the High Court. This is provided for in section 43.
The manner in which the Teaching Council addresses this difficult but important task of disciplining a member will, no doubt, be watched with interest by all of us who have an interest in education. The relevant provisions in the Bill adequately meet the needs of these cases. The provisions are a fine balance between respecting the rights of teachers to fair consideration and due process and the rights of students and parents to have confidence in the system of redress open to them in the event of a complaint against a teacher.
The Teaching Council will give members of the profession a significant measure of control over professional issues relating to all aspects of the teaching career, from recruitment and supply, through initial preparation, induction and probation, to in-career development, as well as for professional conduct and competence. Currently, there is no unified framework in place for the recognition of teachers and the accreditation of programmes of teacher education and training. At first level, the Department's inspectors have a role in this area; at second level the task falls to the Secondary Teachers Registration Council. In the changing and increasingly complex academic and professional world there is a need for a more unified approach. Increasingly, universities and colleges are designing more courses targeted at those who want to teach in our schools. The demand for recognition from teachers qualified outside Ireland is also increasing. Ireland is now part of a wider Europe and we must be mindful of our European Union and wider international obligations in regard to the recognition of qualifications. The Teaching Council will be the designated authority for the purpose of ensuring that these commitments are fulfilled.
The Bill provides us with a timely opportunity to regularise and review accreditation procedures for teachers, whether qualified in Ireland or abroad. The Bill will repeal the Registration Council (Constitution and Procedures) Rules, 1926 under which the Registration Council operated and the council's functions will pass to the new Teaching Council. The Teaching Council will then be responsible for determining the education, training and qualifications required for the purposes of satisfying the requirements of registration.
The role of the Teaching Council in regard to the professional education of teachers will not end when the teacher begins to teach. Rather, the Teaching Council will play an important part in the probation and induction of teachers and in the professional education of teachers throughout their careers.
I know Deputies are conscious of the importance of fostering and developing good North-South contacts in all areas, including education. Deputies will also be aware that there have been very fruitful contacts between Ministers and Departments North and South in recent years, and that this interaction has now been formalised through the North-South Ministerial Council established within the framework of the Good Friday Agreement. The North-South Ministerial Council has already met twice in education sector format and has established a number of joint working groups to progress co-operation on matters of mutual concern. These groups are looking at issues such as special needs provision, tackling disadvantage, educational exchange activity and the position of teachers in the island as a whole. The groups will continue to report progress to the North-South Ministerial Council.
Much work has been done on the establishment of a teaching council in Northern Ireland. Section 7 specifically provides for co-operation with it so that an all-island approach can be taken where that is mutually beneficial. We have much in common with our colleagues in Northern Ireland in the high standards of education provided to our students. I am pleased the Bill gives statutory expression to this spirit of co-operation.
There is much scope for co-operation in the areas within the remit of the Teaching Council and I know that both councils will approach this matter with the enthusiasm that has been the hallmark of previous endeavours in this field. There has been ongoing contact between officials on both sides of the Border as proposals for both councils have developed. We look forward to continuing close contact in the future.
The initial stage in establishing the Teaching Council will be critical from the financial point of view. Until the first council is in place it will not be possible to levy fees and, therefore, provide the necessary finance to fund the initial phase of establishment. In the interim the start up costs will be provided from central funds. There are a number of reasons for this. The Teaching Council will assume responsibility for a range of functions currently being performed by my Department. In particular, the work now being done by the Registration Council will be transferred to the Teaching Council. The Teaching Council will provide a range of advisory services and expertise to my Department and it will make a significant contribution towards continuously improving the quality of education.
In recognition of these services, it is appropriate that the Government, through my Department, signal its support for the work of the Teaching Council by financing its activities through this critical early period of development. Section 20 provides for this funding. The steering committee, which was representative of all the partners in education, recommended the payment of a membership fee by all new applicants for registration. It also recommended that the fee should be waived for the first year of registration in the case of existing teachers who qualify for registration with the council. Section 22 allows the council to set and charge fees.
The high quality of the teaching profession in Ireland has been a theme running through my speech. The profession has traditionally attracted personnel of a consistently high calibre. We all have an interest in seeing this continue. The Teaching Council will be central to the development of the teaching profession in the future. Through the council the teaching profession will mature as a profession and reach a new stage in its development. The development to this point of the proposals for the council has taken place in close co-operation with those for whom it will be most immediately relevant, the teachers themselves. I look forward to continuing to work closely with teachers and the other partners in education as together we move to establish an Irish Teaching Council. I commend the Bill to the House.