Teachers like Jane Moyle will always hit the headlines. The primary school teacher was dismissed for gross misconduct from her South Wales school at the beginning of 2009 after home-made pornography was found on her school laptop. Last month a General Teaching Council for Wales (GTCW) disciplinary committee found her guilty of unacceptable conduct.
According to the most recent GTCW figures, for 200809, 164 cases made it to disciplinary hearings with 49, nearly a third, reprimanded like Ms Moyle. Compare these figures to those cases dealt with by FE's version of a classroom policeman, the Institute for Learning (IfL). In the last year, with the whole of England to police, it has handed out just seven sanctions, while a further 17 letters of advice were issued by the institute's registrar.
Inevitably, more teachers will appear before General Teaching Council for England (GTC) hearings because there are more of them; the latest GTC figures say there are 552,000 registered teachers.
But Toni Fazaeli, chief executive of the IfL - whose current membership of 173,000 is set to rise to 200,000 by next spring - says its code of professional practice focuses on values and behaviour rather than issues of competence, which tend to be dealt with by the college, as the employer.
"Allegations of breach of the code and these professional behaviours are dealt with at a national level by IfL in the interest of the profession," says Ms Fazaeli. "The code is a point of referral for collective responsibility in the sector," she adds. "If a case has got big implications and is about being fit to practice in the profession then it is an IfL issue.
"Upholding the code is a matter of professional pride for the individual and collectively for the profession. Upholding it is an important component of the high-level status that FE teachers and trainers deserve."
Under the code, introduced 18 months ago, lecturers can be sanctioned by the IfL. Of the seven sanctions handed out in 200910, four lecturers were given two-year reprimands. One was disciplined after being convicted in court of threatening behaviour and common assault, while another received the sanction after accessing "adult internet websites during working hours and during lessons in the presence of students".
Another lecturer was given a conditional registration order for 12 months after the IfL's professional practice committee discovered that 80 per cent of an assignment submitted by the lecturer was lifted from the internet.
Still, these sorts of cases - a handful more are pending - are pretty rare, so are teachers in FE just better behaved?
The IfL was set up three years ago to make sure that FE had the same kind of professional body as other industries. Ms Fazaeli says the code was a voluntary measure following guidance from the IfL's regulatory and corporate legal advisers.
She adds that only a handful of cases make it through to full disciplinary proceedings because many are deemed issues for the colleges themselves to deal with. "IfL's code does not address issue of competence in teaching as these are best dealt with at a local level by the employer," she says.
Emma Mason is the senior employment adviser for the Association of Colleges (AoC) and says that the IfL only tends to get involved when a teacher's professionalism is called into question. "This will usually be a more severe case, but a lot are dealt between the college, as the employer, and the individual," she says.
The AoC runs an HR advice service for colleges to access and Ms Mason admits it is well-used. "It is a popular service and we provide advice on issues such as grievances and disciplinary matters," she says.
At the end of last year the association signed a joint agreement with seven unions, including the University and College Union (UCU) and the ATL, on guidance on disciplinary procedures in FE colleges.
Running across 17 pages, the agreement covers the procedures for disciplinary action and sets out a number of examples of offences "which are normally regarded as grounds for summary dismissal" - the sort of serious cases where the IfL gets involved.
These include accessing internet sites containing pornographic, offensive or obscene material, as well as violent, dangerous or intimidatory conduct.
Barry Lovejoy, the UCU's head of FE, says he sees a "handful" of gross misconduct cases every year and that, at the moment, the nine-month-old joint agreement is holding up well. "The remit for the IfL is much more centred on promotion of the requirement to undertake training and personal development," he says. "The main emphasis is the promotion of standards rather than dealing with disciplinary cases."
Perhaps lecturers are simply less likely to run into the problems that their counterparts in schools come up against. There is no statistical evidence to say that FE lecturers are better behaved than those teaching in primary and secondary schools, but some concede that perhaps their experience is invaluable when dealing with difficult situations.
"FE lecturers tend to be a bit older and more experienced," says Mr Lovejoy. "Teachers tend to deal with a much younger age group." This is partly true, but FE can start at 14. Ms Fazaeli points out: "FE teachers and trainers are in a respected position of trust, including with young learners aged 14-19 and vulnerable adults."
Shane Chowen, vice-president for FE at the National Union of Students, says it has never come across a case of a student complaining about the behaviour of their teacher or trainer. "We encourage students to be proactive," he says. "Things such as class reps help students work with their teacher to improve their experience."
The unions seem pleased with the way their members are being treated. Mr Lovejoy says the process is working and that it doesn't need to involve the IfL. "We're reasonably happy with the way it is going," he says. "Most disciplinary cases are done through the college and don't really need to be farmed out." If this happens, he thinks things will get a lot more complicated. "With the GTC, we have an enormous input from lawyers."
There are four sanctions that can be applied under the IfL's code of professional practice:
- conditional registration orders
- suspension orders
- expulsion orders
A total of 51 cases were opened in 200910, with 20 of these closed before they reached the professional practice committee.
Three were dealt with by the committee, while the remainder are still being processed. The committee said that since the code was introduced, over 100 allegations have been made to the IfL about potential breaches.
Panel members who hear cases are appointed from a pool of members and lay people.
Decisions about whether and which sanctions should be applied are taken by the disciplinary panels, who sit with independent legal advisers.