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Teachers in the dock

They're supposed to judge whether people are fit to continue teaching. But some staff feel GTC hearings are unfairly weighted against them. Martin Whittaker reports

Disciplinary hearings of the UK's general teaching councils are regularly reported in The TES. But it is rare to hear about the experience from the teacher's point of view.

Meet Caroline Lathe, 48. Two years ago she was accused of serious professional incompetence, but at a General Teaching Council for England hearing in January she was found not guilty as all but one of the four counts against her were dismissed.

However, the hearing did note that her school's induction programme was lacking, her line manager was "a new and inexperienced head of department", and there was "a failure on behalf of the school to make known to her their expectations, systems and procedures".

Today, she is out of a job and angry about her experience. She believes the process is flawed and unfairly weighted against teachers and she questions why her case ever went to a hearing.

Caroline Lathe, whose subject is science, joined Settle high school and community college in North Yorkshire in September 2002. She had been teaching for 20 years, spending much of her career in New Zealand before returning to the UK in the late 1990s.

Her problems at Settle arose, she claims, from a difficult working relationship with her head of department. Mrs Lathe had applied for the same job but an internal appointment was made.

Mrs Lathe says her real problems began during an inspection six weeks into her first term, when it was claimed - wrongly, she insists - that an inspector had found one of her Year 9 science lessons unsatisfactory. She says she also found it difficult to cope with her new school's discipline system, which, she says, was very different from those of her previous schools.

One of the biggest problems, she believes, was that she was working against her head of department, with whom she had an unhappy working relationship.

She discussed the situation with her union and went to the headmaster about it, only to be told that the school was going to take action against her for incompetence.

Settle school began to monitor her lessons. She claims she was put under intolerable pressure by the school and resigned before the end of her first year on grounds of ill health.

Six months later Mrs Lathe received a letter from the GTC saying she faced disciplinary action. "Nobody ever warned me that suddenly the world would descend on me, and that I could be suddenly unemployed and struck off."

Mrs Lathe says the GTC interviewed former colleagues and her head of department, but did not interview her. She was asked to submit all her evidence in writing. And when she asked whether they could provide her with GCSE and A-level results to help her case, the council refused.

The first hearing was held last October in Birmingham, more than a year after she had left the school. While the GTC had a presenting officer and a legal adviser, she says she could not afford legal representation, although she was represented by an official from her union, the NASUWT. And, while all witnesses against her had their expenses paid, she did not. By this time she was living in Fort William, Scotland.

"At the first hearing, despite all the evidence we had sent, it took them the whole day to present two witnesses - my head of department and principal. By the time it came to me being questioned with my union rep, it was three months later.

"It's just like being in court. Also the only form of appeal is the High Court - there's nothing in between. There's no way I could take something to the High Court. I couldn't afford it to start with, let alone the stress."

The second and final hearing was on January 20 this year. The allegations against her were that she had failed to prepare appropriate work and lesson structures for classes, failed adequately to manage student behaviour, and failed to maintain an appropriate standard of marking.

Only one of the counts - that she failed to prepare appropriate lesson structures - was proved. So she was perfectly at liberty to carry on teaching - but, of course, she had resigned from the job.

"You get to the end and after years of this harassment, all they said was: 'The case is dismissed. We would like to thank you all for coming.

Goodbye.' And they get up and they walk out.

"And I thought: 'Aren't you going to go back to the school and say you did the procedures all wrong?'

"And for me to have the hearing split by three months is crazy. I'm out of a job, struggling to get my life back together, but you can't when you're in the middle of those proceedings."

Mrs Lathe questions the role of the General Teaching Council. "It seems to me that it has a lot of money going into it, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of positive feedback to schools.

"I have been on some appalling courses - why isn't the GTC monitoring them? Why isn't the GTC coming in to the school?

"But that's not what they're there for. It seems to me that they're just there to pick on teachers to show that they are doing their job."

Settle high school and community college was asked to comment, but did not respond.

David James, the GTC's professional standards manager, says the council's procedures comply with relevant legislation and good practice, including those relating to human rights and equal opportunities.

"This means that the procedures are fair and even handed in the way they treat all concerned," he says. "All the council's procedures and guidance are publicly available. Teachers may choose to appear in person and may be represented by whomsoever they choose in the process.

"Hearing committees comprise two practising teachers and a lay representative. Although the procedures can be stressful for the teacher concerned, the council places a high priority upon treating all those involved with dignity."

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