Teachers who are prepared to admit allegations of professional misconduct or incompetence could avoid a General Teaching Council hearing under new rules designed to cut its growing backlog of cases.
The rule was announced after the council revealed nearly 250 teachers are waiting for their cases to be investigated or heard. Meanwhile, their careers are in limbo.
Union lawyers have welcomed the rule, allowing staff who do not contest allegations to bypass hearings, but they are uncertain how many cases would be clear-cut enough to be dealt with in this way.
Alan Meyrick, the GTC's registrar, said the rule would be used only "where appropriate" and only if it was in "the public interest". Sentences would still range from a reprimand to a prohibition order, and the outcomes of cases resolved this way would be made public.
The GTC's annual report shows it held 150 disciplinary hearings this year, just six more than last year and short of its target of 200.
Mr Meyrick said the council had held a record number of hearings this year and that delays were usually due to postponements at teachers' request and the "high number of complex and long-running cases".
The council has had a backlog of cases for some time, and has been criticised for putting teachers through what can be a very drawn-out process. The average time between a case being referred and it reaching a hearing is 57 weeks.
John Davies, former head of one-time Swinford Manor, a secondary for boys with emotional and behavioural difficulties, in Kent, came up before the GTC on a range of child abuse charges. The case took more than two years before he was completely exonerated.
"They have an amateurish, back-of-a-fag-packet way of going about things," he said.
"They calculated my case would take about seven days, which was right, but they took place over an entire year. They even cancelled two days of the hearing because they had a staff training day. Magistrates' courts and employment tribunals are much better organised.
"The effect on peoples' lives is terrible. Waiting in limbo for so long can affect your family, job and career. I lodged a complaint about how long my case took, but when they said that would take four days of hearing, I said, `Forget it'."
Despite this, Mr Davies, now a property developer, has expressed concerns about plans to allow teachers to avoid hearings by admitting allegations against them.
"When you find yourself up before the GTC, you might not be in any state to make a decision about admitting the allegations against you," he said. "You are not necessarily in a good state of mind to defend yourself, and you might opt to admit something just to get it over with and get on with your life."
As well as the high number of cases in the GTC pipeline, complaints about teachers from the public made directly to the council have doubled from 46 in 2006-7 to 92 last year. But officials say most are referred back to be investigated on a local level first.
This year's GTC annual report was published amid news that a CD containing the names and addresses of 11,500 teachers on its register had been lost in the post. The council has written to apologise to teachers who may have been affected.
But Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said many teachers would not be aware of the problem as they threw GTC correspondence away as junk mail.
She has called for any teachers adversely affected by the blunder to be compensated.
GTC hotline: 0870 001 0308
OUTCOMES OF HEARINGS
Last year General Teaching Council disciplinary hearings produced:
11 No finding
29 Prohibition orders
6 No sanction
32 Conditional registration order
14 Others: cases disposed of by alternative means
244 Cases pending, September 2008.