What is the appropriate punishment for serious misconduct? Individual schools can sack teachers, but who decides whether they should be allowed to stay in the profession? Should, for example, a teacher who has been booted out of his school for using racist language be permitted to carry on teaching?
Science teacher Michael Aldersley was dismissed from Calderstones comprehensive in Liverpool in May 2001 after he admitted calling out in class: "Everyone in the nig-nog corner come here - you might learn something."
It was a complex case which aroused considerable anger among parents; 22 per cent of pupils at Calderstones were from ethnic minority groups. Mr Aldersley had an unblemished teaching record and a record of opposing apartheid while teaching in South Africa in the Seventies. Statements of support from colleagues were read out.
But although he lost his job, he has not been barred from teaching. Last December he was given a formal reprimand by the General Teaching Council's disciplinary panel, which since June 2001 has been responsible for hearing cases of misconduct or incompetence. The first hearings were held last February, and there is a session scheduled every week until Easter.
Previously, such hearings were held behind closed doors at the Department for Education and Skills, and the decision whether to bar a teacher was taken by ministers.
The new system puts the disciplinary role firmly back in the hands of the profession, and the GTC is keen not to be seen as a prosecuting body, there to strike off bad teachers, but as a benign one which can offer support as well as sanctions. "It's not a great thing to have to happen, but if it's got to happen at all then far better that the profession is dealing with it in the way we are than being held in private by the secretary of state," says Alan Meyrick, registrar at the GTC for England. (The GTC in Wales has not yet held any full hearings, while the Scottish GTC, which was set up in 1965, has no powers to assess competency.) The verdicts in the dozen or so hearings held so far certainly suggest a supportive ethos at work. One teacher skipped classes at one school to teach in another, getting her innocent husband to phone in sick for her.
She was reprimanded and is now teaching at another school which is "delighted" with her work. A deputy head who was sacked after saying special needs children should be left to rot and telling children he "hated" them was barred from teaching children under 14.
But stiff sanctions have been imposed too. John Cole, an RE teacher in Shropshire, was struck off for a minimum of two years after the panel heard that he referred to pupils as "wankers" in class and tried to block performance related pay rises for his colleagues. And Jane Kershaw, a deputy head in Dorset who was sacked after she was found in the school boiler house drinking vodka, was also barred for the same period.
Others have escaped either suspension or prohibition, receiving instead a reprimand, which stays on the record for two years - as in Michael Aldersley's case - or a conditional registration order, which applies conditions to their staying in the profession, such as further training or counselling.
"The conditional registration order is available to the council so it can demonstrate that it's not there to take punitive action. It's there to take supportive action in the interests of the profession and the public," says Mr Meyrick. "Teachers have trained for four years. The majority of teachers we are dealing with have given unblemished service, and for most of them this is a hiccup. It's about saying OK, this is where we are - how can we get back?".
But do teachers take the GTC seriously? Michael Aldersley did not attend his hearing, nor did he send a representative. And he is not the only one.
Surely the panel takes a dim view of such indifference? Mr Meyrick insists it does not affect their case, though it does make the panel's job harder.
"What the presiding officer demonstrated in the Aldersley case was an excellent example of what we are trying to achieve, which is his opening line - 'I am not here as a prosecuting officer'. What he was presenting, particularly in the absence of anybody from the other side, was the evidence from both sides."
The hearings are conducted in a smart suite of specially leased modern offices at Brindley Place in Birmingham - a canal-side development of office blocks, apartments, wine bars and restaurants. "We wanted somewhere businesslike," says Mr Meyrick. Cases are heard in public by a panel of teachers and a lay person. A lawyer acts as presenting officer, outlining the case to the panel, and evidence from witnesses is taken on oath. The teacher answering the allegations, often represented by their union, can also put their case.
Material explaining the different stages is sent out to the teacher. And when they arrive they are shown the hearing room beforehand, and allocated a room where they can discuss their case with their legal representative.
For one hearing, the GTC even arranged for a teacher to use a PowerPoint presentation to state their case. "It's about trying to treat the teacher with dignity, recognising that it's a difficult time for them," says Mr Meyrick.
The teaching unions were heavily involved in developing the hearings, and in training GTC members who sit on the panels. Mick Carney, a science teacher at St Bede's Catholic comprehensive in Peterlee, County Durham, who chaired the Aldersley case, was nominated by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers.
Training for the role involves mock-hearings, with union officials, lawyers or actors playing the part of the teacher. But what is it like to sit in judgment of your peers? "It's difficult, because there's no such thing as a simple case," says Mr Carney. "We have a responsibility to look for as much information as we can as regards mitigation, as well as condemnation. The hearing itself requires a huge degree of concentration because there are all sorts of nuances that may not be immediately apparent in the paperwork."
He believes the hearings are a good development for the profession. "For too long, control over standards have been in the hands of everybody but teachers. So teachers assuming responsibility for that is an important step in the right direction."
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, says:
"We're very strong supporters of it. We've waited 100 years for this, so we mustn't be impatient about its development."
How you can end up before the GTC
* If a teacher is dismissed or resigns when he or she could have been dismissed for misconduct, the education authority has to refer the case to the DfES.
* If the case involves child protection issues, it is dealt with by the secretary of state. Otherwise the case is referred to the GTC, which writes to the teacher concerned to give them the opportunity to present their case.
* A committee then meets to decide whether there is a case to answer. If there is, it is referred to the GTC's professional competence committee or the professional conduct committee, and the teacher gets formal notice of a hearing.
What the GTC can do
If the hearing finds a teacher guilty of either unacceptable professional conduct or serious professional incompetence, its members can:
* Suspend them from the GTC register for a maximum of two years, after which they can resume teaching.
* Ban them for a minimum of two years after which they have to persuade the panel that they should be reinstated.
* Apply restrictions to their registration by issuing a conditional registration order. This applies certain conditions, such as further training or counselling.
* Issue a reprimand which stays on their record for two years.
A teacher has 28 days from the time they are notified to appeal against the outcome to the High Court.