Irena Barker reports
THE IMPOSING stone facade looming through the Birmingham drizzle does nothing to calm the nerves of teachers about to face a grilling. In the bowels of Victoria House, nearly 300 teachers accused of misconduct and incompetence have had their fates decided by a General Teaching Council for England disciplinary panel.
Teachers have been summoned for a gamut of wrongdoings, from posing as priests to tweaking coursework. Usually, the tribunal is the culmination of months of worry and it is often with a churning stomach that a teacher is lead from the elegant foyer to one of two basement hearing rooms.
There is an uninspiring view over an alleyway and sex shop but, inside, the room is small and neat. There are no wig-wearing judges on majestic thrones, just three council members sitting behind a desk, plus a legal adviser. Those who have witnessed a hearing say the staff are polite and professional and everyone gets their say.
"It's a bit like a classroom, not a court," said one Birmingham journalist who has sat through numerous hearings. "It's more like a job interview situation. Things never get heated. They stress that it is non-adversarial and try not to make it a gruelling experience."
Sarah Bowie, a nursery teacher who has served on the panels since they started, said: "We want to find out as much as possible about the teacher, the school and what's happened, to reach a decision that is as informed as it can possibly be.
"But it's not like Perry Mason or John Deed. We understand how the teachers must be feeling and try hard to put them at their ease."
Hearings can drag on for several days, but are sometimes adjourned for many months. Eventually, the panel will retire to consider the evidence and return with a verdict, either clearing the accused or issuing a reprimand, a conditional registration, a suspension order or a prohibition order.
The GTC has held 227 conduct and 44 competence hearing since its launch in 2000. The system has been praised as fair, but some say the build-up can be Kafkaesque.
Ian Poole, the senior solicitor for the National Association of Head Teachers, whose team has represented around 40 members, said: "Initially, the teacher will receive a bundle of papers associated with the case, but the actual allegations will not be particularised. The teacher is asked to comment on the papers without knowing what they have done. It is only after an investigating committee has decided if the case will go ahead that the case it properly outlined.
"It is very stressful. An 18-month wait to come before a professional conduct panel can have a significant impact on health."
Cases can be referred by employers, including the local authority or school, or by the police in the case of a conviction.
Mr Poole said that there needed to be a more rigorous vetting system for cases. "One head was accused of taking time out in the school day to have a haircut. This could have been dealt with directly by the authority."
John Davies, 59, a former head of Swinford Manor school in Ashford, Kent, was suspended from teaching in 1998 after allegations of physical abuse of pupils, and sacked in 2000. He won damages at an employment tribunal in 2002 but then found he had to face the GTC. He faced five days of hearings over the next two years eight months before being exonerated.
He said: "It was very good, from my point of view, that the hearings were held in public. I had not had that opportunity before, I had only faced kangaroo courts. But the GTC needs to speed up the system. It could learn a lot from the employment tribunals service."
Despite this, Mr Davies is now hoping to become a lay member of the council panel. He left teaching five years ago to set up a property business.
Sitting in judgment
The GTC was launched in September 2000.
50 teachers have received "prohibition orders" and been banned from teaching.
271 conduct and competence hearings have led to 224 sanctions against teachers.
90 conduct and competence hearings were held last year, the most since the GTC started.
121 hearings are still pending.
Norfolk primary headteacher Richard Wealthall endured the longest disciplinary last July when he was banned from working as a head after a 7-day hearing.
The average length of a hearing is 1.2 days.
The GTC registers 540,000 qualified teachers, who each pay an annual fee of pound;33.