Wednesday, 28 March 2001
Dáil Eireann Debate
Section 4 provides for the Minister to make regulations under the Act. Regulations will in general be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. Subsection 2 provides for a number of exceptions to that procedure. Amendment No. 1 had been proposed on Committee Stage to delete the reference to regulations made under section 14(4) from that exemption. While I had no objection in principle to the amendment, as these regulations are originally rooted in separate legislation, the Superannuation Act, I was anxious not to provide for any mechanism in this legislation that may already be covered in the 1980 Act. As Deputies will recall I undertook to consult further on this issue. Having now consulted with the legal advisers I am happy to move the amendment.
This section deals with the objects of the council. I propose that we amend that section to read that it be one of the objectives of the council to ensure  that only qualified teachers be employed or work as teachers in schools. We debated this matter on Committee Stage. We recognise that schools are operating with the assistance of a large number of unqualified teachers. It is important to recognise the steps being taken to deal with that problem and the increased intake into the training colleges. It is a fair objective of the council to seek to ensure that all teachers would be fully qualified and it is appropriate that such an objective would be included in the section. I hope the Minister will accept this amendment in the spirit in which it has been tabled.
Dr. Woods: I listened carefully to the point made by the Deputy but in my view the Bill already covers this matter. Eligibility for registration with the teaching council is outlined in section 31. Any person who before the establishment day is employed as a teacher in a recognised school and paid from moneys provided by the Oireachtas, or where he or she is not employed is eligible to be so employed, will be deemed to be registered for the initial period of 12 months. Within the 12 month period existing teachers must apply to the teaching council to be registered and be issued with certificates of registration under procedures set down by the council. The council may also set down procedures for the registration of persons other than those already mentioned. These regulations may set conditions for registration which may include qualifications, teaching experience, medical fitness and evidence of character.
Section 30 of the Bill provides that a school may employ as teachers paid as such from the public purse only persons who are registered with the teaching council as registered teachers. Untrained substitutes currently fulfil an important role in schools and these individuals will continue to be paid for this purpose out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas. However, it is my intention that every assistance will be given to enable them to satisfy the requirements for registration with the teaching council. If registration is to have a meaning and if we are serious about the promotion of quality in the teaching profession we must move to an all-trained teaching profession. I have had discussions with the unions and people concerned. They are happy with the special arrangements being made for intensive short-term courses. There are difficulties on the edges here and there but they are satisfied that the arrangements being made by the Department are satisfactory.
I wrote to the Deputy concerning numbers. The question of having a sufficiency of trained teachers has been a problem. At primary level 291 teachers graduated in 1995. The total intake at the colleges has greatly increased since that time to meet demand and to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio. The intake for primary teaching in the colleges of education in the 1999-2000 academic year increased to 1,283. That is a significant increase from the 500 entrants in 1996-97.  Given that the intake is increasing there will continue to be a good supply of teachers.
Interviews for posts at second level were held in August last from which 1,000 extra teachers were appointed. There were over 2,000 applications. A position that was difficult has been remedied. As we have said previously, there are difficulties with some areas, such as maths and science. The numbers have been increased significantly and satisfactory numbers are still coming forward for posts. This has been a matter of concern and we are anxious to take care of the position of people who have been teaching for a number of years.
Ms Shortall: I thank the Minister for the letter to which he referred. However, with respect, the Minister has missed the point I am making. I am not raising the issue of registration but rather that under the section dealing with the objects of the council, which are to regulate the teaching profession, ensure professional conduct, establish and maintain standards, promote continuing education and training and so on, should be included the objective of ensuring that only qualified teachers should be employed in schools. I accept all the points the Minister has made about registration but that is not what I am seeking to achieve in this amendment. I am simply saying it is a legitimate objective of a professional body that it would make a statement about the importance of professional qualifications and that it should be an aim of that body to ensure that all persons engaged in teaching are professionally qualified. The amendment has nothing to do with registration. It is simply a statement of the council's aims and objectives, one of which would be to ensure a high standard of professional qualification. It was with that in mind that I tabled the amendment.
Mr. Creed: I support Deputy Shortall's amendment. I accept the Minister's point about the shortage of teachers and the steps taken to ensure the matter is addressed. However, he missed the fundamental point contained in the amendment, which deals with the objects of the council. It is related to a number of other issues that arise, for example, in section 30 the issue of the employment of non-registered teachers not being entitled to be funded out of the public purse. The amendment stands on its merits as an objective of the council. There are related issues in the Bill on which we need to close the circle. It is laudable that the teaching council would have as an objective to ensure that only qualified teachers be employed or work as teachers in schools. On this, as on a number of related issues regarding registration and payment and taking into account that hundreds of schools are employing hundreds of teachers on a daily basis who do not have the necessary qualifications, it should be a laudable objective that the council would aspire to having only qualified teachers. The Government has taken steps to try to ensure continuity of supply.  On that basis it is a laudable objective given that hundreds of non-qualified teachers in primary and post-primary schools are taking classes on a daily basis.
Dr. Woods: It is indeed. That is the objective as it stands. We are moving towards achieving that objective but there will also be a need in some areas for substitute teachers whom I do not wish to exclude. The amendment would place a duty on the council to guarantee that only registered teachers are employed.
Ms Shortall: The Minister is misreading the amendment. The amendment articulates the objective we share which is to ensure that we reach a situation where all those working in schools are fully qualified teachers. Teachers share this objective in respect of the teaching council which is their proposed professional body.
The Minister said there was consultation with all the unions. However, one, and perhaps two unions, specifically requested that we include this as an objective. The Minister is being unnecessarily defensive about this amendment. It does not tie anyone's hands or commit us to using only qualified teachers. The system depends on unqualified teachers but we are proposing that we set as an objective that, over time, all those working in schools will be qualified.
The Minister is aware of the importance of partnership in education. While the council will be independent of the nominating bodies which have a right to appoint members to it, in the spirit of  partnership it should be obligatory for the council to at least consult the teachers' unions.
On Committee Stage the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, stated that this proposal was unacceptable. However, recent events have shown that adequate consultation is important. I am not suggesting that the unions' stamp of approval is required but that they should at least be consulted.
Ms Shortall: The partnership model is well established in education and it is important that we maintain this approach. If there was not a teaching council and the Minister or the Department proposed to introduce a new code of conduct for teachers, there is no question but that there would be full consultation with the teachers' unions before any such code was introduced.
For this reason it is important that where we are providing for the establishment of codes of conduct under the teaching council, we include the recognition of the need to consult and, ideally, obtain the agreement of the partners in education.
We are all clear on the need to distinguish between the role of trade unions and the role of teachers' representatives on the teaching council which will primarily deal with professional issues as opposed to employment or trade union issues. However, for the sake of ensuring good co-operation and consultation and maintaining a high standard of partnership in education, it is important that, before establishing a code of conduct for teachers, the Minister does the unions the courtesy of consulting them. This is a reasonable amendment.
Dr. Woods: Deputies will note that the Bill explicitly provides for the teachers' unions to have representation on the council, not to act as members of the union but as wider representatives of the teaching profession who, through their expertise and experience, will enrich the council as a whole. Should the teaching council require the advice of the trade unions or any other group, it can do so under section 53 which provides that the council may make arrangements with other persons to assist it in carrying out its work.
Deputies should also consider the relationship between the teachers' unions and the teaching council. This issue was considered at length by the report of the steering group on the teaching council which identified a clear distinction between the responsibilities of both organisations as regards the representation of teachers' concerns.
The teaching council will be solely concerned with the qualitative and professional aspects of education while the unions will continue to be primarily concerned with negotiating conditions of service, salaries and pensions. For these reasons I cannot accept the amendments.
This amendment concerns the functions of the council. Section 7(2)(b) states that one of the main functions of the council will be “to establish, publish, review and maintain codes of professional conduct for teachers, which shall include standards of teaching, knowledge, skill and competence”.
My amendment proposes to delete the last part of this section as it is important to distinguish between codes of conduct and teachers' behaviour and teaching standards, knowledge and skills. These are two distinct areas which should not be confused.
Standards of teaching, knowledge, skill, competence and so on are dealt with in other sections of the Bill and, presumably, this will be a major area of concern for the promised commission on teaching. However, I am concerned that there will be confusion on the part of the Department or the teaching council as regards these issues. These are distinct areas and we should separate the behaviour and conduct of teachers from the issue of standards and skills.
We need clarity on the behaviour of teachers in respect of students, colleagues, principals, boards of management and so on. This is a distinct issue and it would be dangerous to confuse it with the issue of educational standards and skills.
Dr. Woods: One of the council's important functions will be “to establish, publish, review and maintain codes of professional conduct for teachers, which shall include standards of teaching, knowledge, skill and competence”. Self-regulation also applies to other councils, such as the Medical Council. This Bill provides for self-regulation for the teaching profession and the majority of the council's members will be teachers. The words the amendment proposes to delete, “standards of teaching, knowledge, skill and competence”, are central to establishing the context in which the conduct and standards of behaviour of a teacher must be judged. Without such a context it would be impossible to make such a judgment. If the legislation was not to contain such a description, in all likelihood, the council would have to create such a context in order to give meaning to the concept of a code of professional conduct. The alternative scenario would be a code of conduct so detached from the reality of the teaching profession as to be meaningless. Such a code would serve little purpose in acting  as a quality assurance mechanism, either for the public or the profession. It is, therefore, an important and necessary function of the profession. It will be set, run and guided by the profession which will have the majority of members on the council.
Ms Shortall: The Bill would have been better if those two functions had been separated. I am concerned about the confusion that will arise from mixing both functions. Standards, skill and competence are areas I would prefer to see separated. The legislation should provide for dealing with the behaviour as opposed to the conduct of teachers in respect of standards. The area of standards is a distinct one and for that reason I ask the Minister to reconsider the matter.
Dr. Woods: It is an important aspect which, as the Deputy will realise, does apply. If the council will not do it, it will have an important function taken away from it. I refer the Deputy to the Medical Council with which the Leas-Cheann Comhairle is familiar. We look to the Medical Council to set such standards and are looking to the Teaching Council to do the same for the teaching profession. As it will enjoy statutory independence, from the point of view of those involved in the profession and the public at large, it will give a strong assurance that professional standards will be maintained. In that sense it is important.
Mr. Creed: Will the Minister elaborate on what he considers to be professional conduct or, looking at the other side of the question, what he considers to be conduct unbecoming a professional in a teaching capacity? I am trying to elucidate what exactly we are talking about. Are we talking about the behaviour of a member of the profession outside the classroom or are we dealing strictly with the discharge of one's duties within one's contracted time within a school environment? This could well be a Pandora's box. While everybody would like the teaching profession to aspire to high standards of knowledge in teaching as well as adequate competency and skills, where are we drawing the line in terms of professional conduct? Is it conduct entirely within the school and classroom or outside that environment?
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Before allowing the Minister to reply briefly, on Report Stage each Member, including the Minister, is allowed to speak twice, except for the proposer of the motion who is allowed to speak on a third occasion is they so wish. In this instance, the Minister has already spoken twice, but I will  allow him one minute in which to respond to the question asked. I remind Deputies, however, to stay within Standing Orders.
Dr. Woods: I have to deal with situations where there are abuses of one kind or another. Inspectors deal with such cases as they come though the system. Under the new legislation, however, the profession will deal with such issues. The Deputy mentioned matters that occur outside the school which, for instance, could include cases of abuse. They would become a matter of one's conduct as a professional. There is no doubt that questions of illegality or criminality are rare, but they have to be dealt with when they arise. The teaching profession wanted to assume that function which, in the first instance, is being left with it.
This amendment deals with the functions of the council. It is stated on page 9 of the Bill that one of its functions will be “to determine from time to time the education, training and qualifications required for a person to be registered”. I am seeking to insert the words, “following the coming into effect of this Act” after the word “registered”. Will the council be in a position to retrospectively apply standards in order that somebody will be automatically registered on the day the Bill is enacted? The benchmark may be set so high that it may not be possible for him or her to reregister after a period of 12 months. If the council establishes such a high level of training and qualifications for a person to be so registered, it may be unreasonable to expect him or her to be able to meet it. I am thinking of those teaching in the vocational sector who do not hold a higher diploma in education. If the council decides that all teachers employed in a school on the date the Bill is enacted are registered, from that date onwards it will be possible for the council to revisit the issue of what is an appropriate educational qualification. Somebody who does not hold a higher diploma in education, but has 15 or 20 years' teaching experience could find that after 12 months he or she is not eligible to renew his or her registration and is, therefore, no longer entitled to teach. I am anxious to avoid such a scenario. The import of the amendment would be to draw a line in the sand and say that if one is entitled to be registered on the date the Bill becomes law, one cannot be deregistered for reasons that the council may, at a later stage, determine to be an appropriate level of qualifi cation, but which it is not reasonable to expect someone to meet thereafter.
In his reply on Committee Stage the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, said that the council would not be empowered to apply retrospectively new standards to the existing body of teachers, but I fail to see where that is enshrined in the Bill. I am, effectively, seeking to copperfasten the matter in order that the council would not be entitled to so do. The Minister of State said that he would clarify the position before Report Stage. Perhaps the Minister will deal with the matter.
Dr. Woods: I understand the Deputy's concerns in this regard. He mentioned drawing a line, but I will not talk about sand since it shifts a little. The role of the teaching council can only be to set out the standards and qualifications which will apply to those teachers who, in the future, seek to register with it. It is not my intention that the council should be empowered to retrospectively apply new standards to the existing body of teachers. This matter was debated at length on Committee Stage and I sought legal advice in respect of it. I have been assured that the Bill, as currently worded, safeguards the rights of existing teachers. Section 31 provides for the registration of existing teachers on establishment day. Annual renewal of registration will not be subject to a review of the qualification requirements. However, the council will have a proactive role in promoting the value and importance of continued in-service training for teachers. As the Deputies will be aware, such training is an essential part of the teaching profession because it allows its members an opportunity to become familiar with new developments in the field of theory and practice. This duty is provided for in section 39.
Mr. Creed: I am not reassured by the Minister's comments. He seems to suggest that the council, when established, could not at any future date establish a particular level of qualification as a prerequisite to being allowed to teach which would not apply to all registered teachers. There are teachers working at present who do not possess a higher diploma in education. If the teaching council decides that, in the course of a 12 month period between registration, the higher diploma is the desirable standard of qualification, on re-registration certain people will not be able to meet that standard. I understand that provision is made in the Bill to allow people to acquire the necessary skills in certain areas. Is it reasonable, however, that a person with many years of teaching experience could find themselves – I cannot state a definite case here because I would be presupposing what the council may decide – excluded from their profession because they do not possess, for example, a higher diploma in education?
The wording proposed in the amendment would have the effect of granting an amnesty to those who are already employed as teachers. It  would also ensure that they would not be affected by the type of scenario I have outlined.
Dr. Woods: We checked this matter with the Parliamentary Counsel and sought his advice. I am assured that the position of a person who is registered, in the first instance, will be safeguarded from the establishment day forward. The other section to which I referred deals with ongoing in-service training, etc. Even in the event of a future council attempting to take action in this area, it will be possible for the matter to be referred to the High Court.
In page 9, line 17, after “Minister” to insert “and the Minister shall have regard to such advice and shall, in any case where he or she does not accept such advice, publish reasons for his or her decision”.
We had a lengthy debate on this matter on Committee Stage and the Minister of State undertook to examine a number of the amendments we had tabled in respect of it. We had hoped that the senior Minister would accept some of them.
The main reason for tabling amendment No. 10 is to ensure that the teaching council will not become a mere talking shop and that it will play a central role in the development of teaching as a profession. Section 7, to which it relates, is  concerned with the functions of the council and contains a reference to the advice the Minister will be given by the council. I suggest that we amend the section to include the term “and the Minister shall have regard to such advice and shall, in any case where he or she does not accept such advice, publish reasons for his or her decision”. There has been wide consultation on this Bill and the teaching council, when it is established, will be and important body and it will also be representative of all teacher interests. In addition, there will be a great deal of expertise and experience available among the ranks of the council.
One of the main functions of the teaching council will be to provide advice to the Minister of the day. It is important that we will be able to discover what happened to that advice once it has been issued by the council. In an ideal world where the council and the Minister work in unison, he or she will take that advice on board. However, where it is not taken on board or ignored – there may be legitimate reasons for this – the council should have the right to know why this is the case. In fairness to those involved, where the advice is not taken the Minister should publish the reasons for this. He or she could make a simple statement outlining the reasons for not taking the advice and indicating his or her position in relation to the matter on which that advice was sought. This would ensure that the voice of the council will be strengthened, that it would not be a mere talking shop and that the advice it will give will not be left to gather dust. The council must have an active and effective role in influencing policy.
Mr. Creed: I support the amendment. I recall that in the recent past the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform got into hot water with regard to the setting up of an advisory body to adjudicate on the establishment of the Human Rights Commission for which provision was made in the Good Friday Agreement. Having put the body in place, the Minister did not taken its advice on board and, understandably, all hell broke loose. That is a lesson that could be applied here. We are establishing a 37 member Teaching Council with 11 members from the primary sector, 11 from the post-primary sector and the remaining members from third level colleges such as UCC, UCD, UCG, Dublin University, Maynooth, UL, St. Patrick's, Drumcondra, and the Church of Ireland College of Education, Rathmines. It will obviously be a high powered council reaching across all sectors of Irish education.
I am not suggesting that the Minister or his successor, whoever that might be, would willingly disregard advice. The Minister will be obliged to take on board the views of the council and, where he disagrees with it, to publicly outline the reasons for so doing. Otherwise, the credibility of the council will be undermined, which would be undesirable. I support the amendment.
Dr. Woods: As the Deputy said, all hell would break loose which means that people are interested in the matter. While it is valuable and important that the council should advise the Minister on a range of matters, it is inevitable that there will be instances where the Minister will not be in a position to accept or act on its advice. In such situations the Minister must remain accountable to the Oireachtas, not the council.
There are means by which the Minister is and will continue to be accountable to the Oireachtas. These remain the most appropriate means of ensuring his or her accountability. In a case where the Minister is not in a position to accept or act on the advice of the council and where the council deems it appropriate, reference may be made to the matter in its annual report to be published under section 55. There is nothing in the Bill to prevent it from publishing other reports during the course of the year should it see fit to do so. The normal administrative procedure will be for the Minister to set out his or her views in response to any queries such as those mentioned or the reasons the advice of the council is not being taken. If there are situations where, for what the Minister considers to be good reasons, its advice is not being taken, the Minister must remain accountable to the Oireachtas.
This is a technical amendment. There is a danger that the role of the Teaching Council and that of the teacher unions will be confused. On most matters affecting teachers the current lines of communication are between the Minister, the Department and the teacher unions. There will now be another body in place. Although the teacher unions will be represented on the council, we must ensure there will be a distinct relationship between the Department and the teacher unions, the Department and the council and the council and the teacher unions. Those lines of commmunication should be kept open. The council should not be used as a back door in introducing changes to the code of conduct or any other matter affecting the terms of a teacher's employment.
The current wording is ambiguous. It is important that clear distinctions are drawn between the role of the teacher unions and that of the Teaching Council. Trade unions are normally seen to act in a representative capacity. The wording “represent the teaching profession” could, therefore, lead to ambiguity, if not amended. I suggest that we change it to read, “present the views of teachers” to distinguish between the role of teachers on the Teaching Council, who will be representative of the body of teachers generally, and that of those who act in a representative capacity, namely, trade union representatives. If we were to distinguish between those two roles, we would improve the Bill.
Dr. Woods: Following Committee Stage and having been advised by my colleague of the Deputy's concerns, I discussed the wording again with my legal advisers. I have been advised that there is no substantive or legal difference from the phrase contained in the Bill. Like the Medical Council and An Bord Altranais, the Teaching Council will represent the profession on educational matters. The teacher unions will continue to represent teachers on issues relating to pay and conditions. The teacher unions and teachers will be represented in big numbers with the social partners. The purpose of the Bill is to have a separate body which will deal clearly with the status of the profession which will be kept separate from matters such as salaries.
This amendment relates to the functions of the council which are dealt with on one and a half pages of the Bill, the last paragraph of which states that the council shall implement the policies relating to teacher education training, probation qualifications, professional conduct and standards of teaching as established from time to time by the Minister. Consultation and the role of the Teaching Council in drawing on its expertise to advise the Minister in drawing up codes of conduct and ensuring high standards are mentioned at the beginning. This is all left aside, however, where the Bill states that the council shall implement decisions taken by the Minister, about which there is a hint of diktat. This does not reflect the spirit of partnership which underlay the consultation with the various education interests. The paragraph seems to suggest that the autonomy of the council may be overridden at the will of the Minister of the day. While that is not the intention of the Minister, it could happen at some point.
This area of the Bill will not be conducive to good relations between the council and the Minister. While its various sections outline the role and functions of the council, we could have a situation where the Minister issues a ruling or guidelines which must be accepted without consultation or discussion. This negates many of the preceding positive provisions. For this reason the section  should be deleted. The Bill would be better if the amendment was carried.
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