Should teacher's misdeeds be headline news?

14th August 2009 at 01:00
General Teaching Council for Scotland says public hearings are in teachers' best interests

Original headline: GTCS - Should a teacher's misdeeds be headline news?

Are more teachers than ever behaving badly? In 2002-03, 230 cases came to the attention of the profession's regulatory body, the General Teaching Council for Scotland; by 2007-08, that figure had more than doubled to 465.

Back in 2002-03, only one case came before a disciplinary hearing and that teacher was not struck off. By 2007-08, however, the disciplinary sub- committee - the final stage of the GTCS's regulatory processes - heard 19 cases and struck off 10 teachers.

A skim through recent newspaper coverage seems to reflect this increase.

Susan Barnard became the first teacher to be struck off for incompetence last year amid a blaze of publicity. This year, teachers' misconduct was again making headlines: Dundee secondary teacher Angela Dunning was struck off for having sex with a pupil; teachers Peter Orr and Andrew Melville were deregistered, following court convictions for having indecent images of children on their computers; and RE teacher Stephen McInally lost his registration for engaging in explicit conversations with pupils about sex and showing a film clip deemed "sectarian in nature".

Much has changed, even over the past decade, argues the GTCS as it denies suggestions that Scotland's teachers are becoming "naughtier".

With more rigorous child protection checks in place and a greater emphasis on training staff to spot abuse, perpetrators are less likely to slip through the net. Victims, meanwhile, understand the shame is not theirs and are more likely to report inappropriate behaviour.

"The number of teachers has also increased," says John Anderson, head of professional practice at the council.

If what used to be a trickle of media stories has now apparently turned into a torrent, the explanation is simple: before 2006, journalists were not permitted entry to GTCS disciplinary hearings. The move to open them up to the public has fuelled a passionate debate. Some feel teachers do not deserve to find themselves at the centre of a media storm - as Susan Barnard did - just because they've performed poorly at work.

After reports of Ms Barnard's hearing appeared, The TESS received a letter arguing "incompetence is not a crime" and GTCS chief executive Tony Finn said he would have preferred it if Ms Barnard had been treated with more dignity. Even Peter Peacock, Scotland's former education minister and the architect of the GTCS's new powers to take action over incompetent teachers, expressed concern. While poor performance must be addressed, damning headlines were a cause for concern, he said.

When teachers attend hearings they are worried about being featured in newspapers the next day, says the GTCS. It fears the public is getting the wrong impression and is keen to stress that only a tiny proportion are struck off - 13 teachers a year, on average, over the past five years. This amounts to 0.02 per cent of the teaching population (54,000). The council maintains, however, that opening hearings to the public was the right move.

"If the hearing is conducted in private, it looks like a smoke-filled room," says Mr Anderson.

"This is a public body regulating in the public interest and the interest of the profession, and it's important that the public and the profession see it doing its job fairly and squarely."

He adds: "We aren't doing it because everybody else does it - but they do."

Other regulatory bodies do invite the press in - the GTC in England has been doing so since it came into being in 2000 and the General Medical Council believes hearings relating to a conviction or misconduct have been heard in public since the organisation came into being, more than 150 years ago.

Just last month, senior cardiothoracic surgeon Pankaj Mankad found his extramarital affair splashed across the front pages of the national press after the female doctor he had been involved with hit him in a hospital corridor. When the incident was reported, his profession's regulatory body, the General Medical Council, investigated.

Did the public need to know about Mr Mankad's affair? That's the price you pay for being in the public domain, says solicitor Andrew Gibb, who has been employed by the Educational Institute for Scotland to defend its members since the early 1980s.

"You should be able to trust and look up to professional people," he says. "I don't mean that in a snobby way, but I think that's life." He agrees with the GTCS that disciplinary hearings had to become more transparent.

"The public should know what's going on," he says. "Gone are the days when you could just cosy up and do deals."

He describes the Susan Barnard case as "a frenzy".

"The way it was reported was a bit hysterical," says Mr Gibb, who represented her at her hearing.

He says his clients are anxious when they attend hearings but, unlike the GTCS, he feels this has little to do with the presence of the media: the fact that their career is on the line is what concerns them.

"The process can do an immense amount of harm to those subject to it but, in most cases, I think the committee has got the decision right - in fact, probably in all the cases. I don't remember ever coming away with the view that a manifest injustice had been done."

Teachers come to the attention of the GTCS either through their employers, who are obliged to report dismissals, or in cases where they have left their post before action could be taken; through the Scottish Police Services Authority, which reports any teachers convicted of crimes; through complaints from members of the public; or through Disclosure Scotland, which runs checks on teachers when they apply to join the register.

In the 12 months leading up to March 31, 244 cases were referred to the GTCS. Of those, 178 came from the Scottish courts and Disclosure Scotland. They included 117 road traffic offences, 26 crimes of violence, 18 crimes of dishonesty (such as fraud), nine public order offences (such as breach of the peace), four sexual offences and four drug-related offences.

Mr Anderson says: "We consider ourselves to be part of a triangle. There are also the employers, who regulate through the employment contract, and there is personal regulation. As a registered teacher, you should know what's right and what's wrong, what's acceptable and unacceptable.

Like charity beginning at home, so does good conduct."

The case for holding hearings in public

"Although there is demand to learn the details of a case and serve the public `right to know', the application of human rights law is about balancing the public interest with the rights of individuals, such as the right to privacy of those involved - not only teachers but others, such as pupils.

"Article Six of the European Convention on Human Rights - right to a fair trial and fair hearing - is a complex area of law. In general, there is a presumption in human rights law that any proceedings which determine a civil right should be held in public, in order to ensure public scrutiny of the administration of justice. However this presumption can be rebutted by competing rights, such as the right to privacy and child protection."

Source: Scottish Human Rights Commission.

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