Your future in the balance

18th April 2008 at 01:00
If you are accused of misconduct, you may end up in front of the General Teaching Council. Madeleine Brettingham finds out what it's like for the teachers who decide your fate

Birmingham's city centre might seem an inauspicious place for a teacher's fate to be decided. But that's where the General Teaching Council for England (GTCE) is housed, in the basement of an imposing civic building opposite the town hall.

Here teachers who have done anything, from downloading child porn to contravening safety policy, are judged by a panel of school staff and laymen who decide whether they are fit to return to the classroom.

With a fresh raft of GTCE council members only recently elected, what does it feel like to pass judgment?

Nicola Wilson, 35, a primary teacher from Hackney in London, knows more than most. She is an appointed member of the council, where she has served since 2004, helping to form policy and sitting on its disciplinary panel. She decides if guilty staff should receive a reprimand or a lifetime ban from the classroom.

The panel's role is to "ensure the high standard of the profession is maintained", and this means deciding if teachers are guilty of "unacceptable professional conduct", incompetence or a criminal offence that could affect their teaching. This might include committing assault, coming into school drunk, or failing to respect school confidentiality. In fact, anything set out in the nine-page code of conduct.

Nicola admits that she found the responsibility daunting when she chaired her first hearing. "But we had intensive training and we have a legal adviser with us at all times if there's anything we're unsure of."

She says the experience has improved her organisational skills, and helps her support the new teachers she works with.

"Because I see what happens when things don't go well, it helps me be aware when people aren't coping and to give them the right support."

Does she ever feel guilty for striking teachers from the register? "Before I started, I thought I would. But actually, no."

She is aware of criticisms of the GTC, but believes that "the public interest is important. It's a small minority of teachers who appear before us. And the professional standards are clear".

Before a hearing, Nicola stays at a Birmingham hotel overnight before arriving at the GTCE premises at 9am. On average, she works 25 days a year unpaid, although her school is reimbursed for the cost of a supply teacher. This time, along with her two fellow panellists, she is hearing the case of a music teacher accused of allowing pupils onto a staff-only area of the school network, giving them unlicensed software to copy, and helping a pupil with their coursework.

It's a case where there is a lot of hinterland: the teacher has been off for months with stress and depression, and has had run-ins with a head he described as "intimidating" (although the headteacher disputes this).

Nicola and the panel listen to evidence from both sides before retreating into an adjoining room to make their decision. The discussions take several hours. When they return, they find the first two allegations - about software and the school network - proved, but say there is insufficient evidence to establish the teacher has submitted bogus coursework. The allegation of unacceptable professional conduct is upheld, and the teacher leaves with a reprimand, the lowest possible sanction.

Considering the facts

In the cut-and-thrust of the hearings it can be difficult to separate truth from fiction, Nicola says. "One of the first things I learnt was don't be afraid to ask questions. If someone's not answering you properly, tell them."

The GTCE is seen as a body concerned with banning teachers from the profession. But this is only part of the story. Of its 127 cases in 2007- 08, 29 resulted in complete prohibition and 31 in a reprimand. Of the rest, 29 concluded staff could carry on teaching, provided they adhered to certain conditions (such as regular drugs tests, or medical check-ups), and a minority were suspended. Surprisingly, the most common cases, and the ones that attract the most prohibition orders, are those dealing with misconduct outside the workplace (around 30 per cent).

This has led to the GTC being portrayed as a busybody poking its nose into teachers' personal lives. But many of the offences it picks up are serious. A conviction for violent assault or child pornography outside the workplace could well have repercussions in the classroom. In the past, teachers who had been sacked for such offences as taking sexual photographs of pupils or, as in one memorable case, stashing 200 bottles of alcohol in a classroom cupboard, would have been free to go and get a job elsewhere.

But cases such as that of Margaret Field, the primary teacher found guilty of unacceptable professional conduct last year after taking pupils on to a beach without carrying out a risk assessment, have led the organisation into controversial territory. But Nicola is confident the decisions she makes are fair. "I don't make decisions based on what I think. I use evidence. You never start on the basis you are going to give the teacher a prohibition. You start at no sanction and work your way up, according to the evidence."

Indeed, the more serious the allegation, the more evidence the panel - which works according to the civil standard, "on the balance of probabilities" - needs to have to support claims. There are great bundles of evidence that Nicola reads at home, in the evenings, or even in the bath.

The disciplinary panel is only part of the story. She also attends GTC meetings, and fills in colleagues on the latest research and policy, as well as bringing her experience in the classroom to the council.

"It has made me more confident in my personal opinions," she says. "I'd never sat on any boards or committees before, and at first I thought, `oh, I'm just a teacher'. But everything I have to say is valued."

We're in charge

Results have recently been announced for the GTCE elections. Twenty-three new members of the council, which sits on disciplinary panels and guides policy, will be inducted in June.

How do disciplinary hearings work?

If a school sacks a teacher for reasons of misconduct or incompetence - or would have sacked them if the teacher hadn't ceased to provide their services - they are referred to the GTC (for England, Wales or Scotland), or the Department for Children, Schools and Families, if the case relates to child welfare.

Unlike the General Medical Council, which regulates doctors, the GTC rarely deals with complaints directly from members of the public.

The council's investigating committee decides if there is a case to answer, a hearing is arranged, and the teacher is invited to respond.

If the panel decides the teacher is guilty of unacceptable professional conduct, incompetence, or a relevant criminal offence, it has one of five options: strike them off the register; suspend them from the register; allow them to remain on the register but with conditions (such as regular drug tests); impose a reprimand; or opt for no sanction. The decision will be visible on the teacher's GTC records.

The good, the bad and the ugly

  • January 2007. Critics accuse the GTC of promoting rampant bureaucracy after it reprimands a Southampton primary teacher for allowing pupils on a beach during a school trip without carrying out a risk assessment.
  • July 2006. Eight years after he was first suspended, the headteacher of a Kent special school is finally admitted back into the classroom after being cleared of a range of misdeeds, including sending pupils on cross- country runs. "If taking kids for cross-country runs is physical abuse, then the GTC has a job for life," he said.
  • July 2005. A Scottish chemistry teacher, who was discovered to have taken photographs of female pupils in miniskirts, is struck off the register. He was caught after staff at a supermarket where he developed the film found pictures containing "alarming subject matter".
  • May 2004. A Birmingham drama teacher is suspended from teaching for 12 years after luring women to fake auditions and making them simulate sexual acts. The GTC concluded he had "brought disrepute to the school and the profession".
  • September 2003. A gun-obsessed primary teacher who stockpiled weapons at his home - including nine handguns, a CS canister, a stun gun and several rounds of ammunition - is allowed to return to teaching after a GTC hearing. However, he is bound to inform them if he takes a new job.


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