Teachers facing the most serious disciplinary charges will feel "pressurised" into pleading guilty to avoid public hearings under a new system to regulate the profession, unions in England have warned.
The Teaching Agency, which has taken over from the General Teaching Council for England (GTCE) in investigating misconduct south of the border, will consider dealing with cases behind closed doors if teachers admit the allegations against them.
Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said that the agency was setting up a "trade-off" that went "against natural justice".
"It could mean pressure is put on teachers to admit charges in order to have a private hearing," she said. "We could find teachers being pressurised to admit things they haven't done just because they don't want the public exposure."
The Teaching Agency will only hear serious cases of professional misconduct that could lead to teachers being banned from the profession. Less serious cases - which might have resulted in a reprimand from the GTCE - will now be dealt with by schools, as will all issues relating to teaching ability. After cases have been heard by the agency, the final decision on whether to ban a teacher will be made by the Westminster education secretary.
Cases heard by the GTCE were also sometimes held in private when teachers fully admitted allegations against them, but the ATL education union has called for the provision to be scrapped under the new regime.
Sharon Liburd, solicitor for the ATL, said cases should be heard in public. "We believe the process must be transparent and fair - and that means open hearings whether or not the allegations are admitted," she said. "We're concerned that conducting private meetings for teachers who admit the allegations made against them might put them under pressure to do so in order to avoid public exposure."
With the first Teaching Agency cases yet to be concluded, it is unclear how much information will be made public, following private disciplinary meetings. Under the old GTC system, fewer details of teachers' conduct were published after private hearings than after public ones.
Fifteen of the 54 cases listed in the first three months of the Teaching Agency will be held in private - 28 per cent of the total.
The decision to scrap the GTCE was one of the first made by Michael Gove after he became Westminster education secretary in 2010. When he announced the move, Mr Gove criticised the council for failing to discipline a teacher who was a member of the British National Party and had used a school laptop to describe some immigrants as "filth".
A Department for Education spokeswoman said that, in cases where teachers pleaded guilty, there was no need for a public hearing as there would be no witness statements to be considered.
"The panel will deliberate over the information and this will then be made public," she said. "There may be perceived benefits to a teacher in not having to attend a hearing, but there is no pressure put on them to opt for a (private) meeting."
There is a new sheriff in town
- A total of 173 cases were transferred to the Teaching Agency when the General Teaching Council for England closed at the end of March.
- The agency will hold hearings for 114 of these cases.
- A further 47 cases need more investigation before agency staff decide whether or not there should be a hearing.