Urgent need for fitness to teach hearings, ombudsman says

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November 7, 2015 by johnston00

Long-promised fitness hearings for the teaching profession should be introduced urgently to improve accountability in schools, the Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon has said.

He told the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection that education was the single biggest source of complaints to his office, accounting for 47 per cent of the 1,600 grievances it dealt with in 2014.

And the three biggest complaints were over the handling of inappropriate conduct, the response of schools to bullying, and contentious policy decisions.

Although a large number of complaints related to agencies outside of schools, such as the Department of Education and Skills, the National Council for Special Education and the State Examinations Commission, introducing Part 5 of the Teaching Council Acts would make “a huge inroad”, Dr Muldoon said.

This provision allows for the creation of fitness to teach hearings, which have been delayed in part because of disagreement between the teacher unions over whether hearings should take place in public. However, committee member Senator Gerry Craughwell, a former president of the Teachers Union of Ireland, urged Dr Muldoon not to “dabble” in the issue as it was contentious enough already.

Jim Daly TD (Fine Gael) said he believed there should be a specific “Ombudsman for Education” to improve accountability in the sector. The deputy had drafted a legislative proposal on the matter but said he expected the Department and other education partners to oppose it because “I’m upsetting the status quo of vested interests”.

Dr Muldoon said he did not believe such a standalone ombudsman was warranted as his office had sufficient remit to deal with complaints.

Regrettably, however, it had “de facto” become the only avenue of recourse for parents who wished to challenge the decision of school boards.

This was because of the combined effect of failing to introduce fitness hearings, and the refusal of successive government to implement fully the provisions of Section 28 of the Education Act 1998, which set out how grievances and concerns of a student could be dealt with and remedied.

“Two major elements of the complaint structure for the general public are only available in theory,” he remarked.

“Parents are entitled to expect to be able to raise concerns about how their children are being taught and to assume there is a standardised complaints system within all schools – however, neither of those is available to them at present… and that is not good enough.”

He added there was a “flaw” in the current system in that the Department was powerless to overturn a decision of the board of management even though it was the paymaster. A “recalibrating” of responsibilities was justified, although this was ultimately a legislative matter, he pointed out.

The ombudsman also cited a need for national oversight of bullying strategies in schools, saying there was currently no mechanism for annual review and monitoring of practices.

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