Tuesday, 2 December 2008
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for the opportunity to raise this important matter, namely, the need for the Minister for Education and Science to review the current procedures for the employment of substitute teachers by schools and the formalisation of such websites used to source teachers to ensure only candidates with the required teaching qualifications and up-to-date Garda clearance are given positions in Irish schools.
A serious issue has come to our attention in recent times whereby websites being accessed by school principals to source substitute teachers may contain the details of candidates who do not hold appropriate qualifications and who do not have Garda clearance but who, if engaged by the principal teachers, who are usually under pressure to find a teacher quickly, would then be given access to classrooms of young children. This is not in keeping with the standards for best practice which have been laid down for all contact with young children by personnel and it highlights that the time has come to review the procedures in place.
It is very much in keeping with the times in which we live that school principals should be able to utilise on-line facilities to access such substitutes. However, I ask the Minister to take this opportunity to formalise the procedures. One suggestion I would make for the Minister's consideration is that these websites would be formalised and that principals would only access such authorised sites which in turn would be required to ensure only the details of candidates who had appropriate qualifications and only candidates who had Garda clearance would be posted.
We are fortunate in having access to the very excellent services of the Garda Síochána vetting unit. It could be utilised by having it identify designated personnel who operate the websites as being the people to request Garda clearance for any candidate who wishes his or her details to be posted on the websites. This would be of great assistance to school principals who are already under pressure and often only have very short notice in which to engage a substitute. Most importantly, it would ensure we are in keeping with the standards we have set ourselves to enhance and maximise the protection of our children. I ask the Minister to consider this proposal.
I am glad to have this opportunity to update the House on the current procedures for the employment of substitute teachers by schools. The recruitment and selection of staff, whether for teaching or other positions in a school, rests with boards of management as the employer. Good practice should involve the checking of recent employment records, qualifications, experience and names of referees. While many substitute teachers have previous experience working in schools and may be known to schools, there is clearly a heightened requirement for vigilance in checking the prior employment record where the person seeking employment is not known to the school or is approaching the school for the first time.
Good practices are warranted in any event, quite apart from the specific issue of safeguarding against any child protection risk. In respect of child protection, the arrangements for vetting of teaching and non-teaching staff are set out in Department circular 0094 of 2006 which issued to all schools in June 2006. The circular is available on the website of the Department of Education and Science. The vetting arrangements were introduced in September 2006 for vetting of new teachers at the time of their initial registration with the Teaching Council, regardless of whether they are likely to enter permanent employment or take up appointments as substitute or part-time teachers. The procedures also apply to prospective employees for posts that involve working with children such as special needs assistants, SNAs, bus drivers, bus escorts to children with special needs, caretakers and other ancillary staff in schools.
As the expansion of service by the Garda vetting unit is rolled out, the Department of Education and Science will consult the relevant education stakeholders on how best to introduce vetting of existing teachers working in any capacity — permanent, part-time or substitute — in the school system and other existing education staff working with children. The circular requires the vetting of any person being appointed to a teaching position, whether permanent, part-time or substitute, who has not been employed in the school system in the previous three years.
Irrespective of the position on vetting by the Garda vetting unit, where facts or information come to a board of management's attention calling into question a person's suitability to work with children, it is a matter for the board to be satisfied that the person is suitable to work in that capacity. This naturally will have to be assessed case by case. The board will have to consider all the circumstances of the case, give due weight to all relevant factors and afford fair procedures to the individual concerned before making a decision.
It is the policy of the Department of Education and Science that unqualified personnel should only be employed in exceptional circumstances and when all avenues for recruiting qualified personnel have been exhausted. It is probably inevitable in such situations that schools must be in a position to have recourse to unqualified personnel. It is essential that reliance on such personnel be restricted and kept to the absolute minimum. The previous Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Mary Hanafin, had indicated the intention to bring forward amending legislation which would set out the limitations upon a school's capacity to engage people other than qualified teachers. The Department of Education and Science is working on the proposed legislation and it is the current Minister's intention to advance this amendment to the Teaching Council Act 2001 as soon as possible.
The Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, has no plans to formalise the use of websites for the sourcing of substitute teachers. Schools, as employers, make their own arrangements for the employment of substitute teachers. Many substitute teachers have previous experience of working in schools and generally would be known to schools. Other schools use the text a sub service operated through the Irish Primary Principals' Network. In all cases there is a need for schools to ensure they have good practices in place for the checking of recent employment records, qualifications, experience and names of referees where a new substitute teacher is not known to the school or is approaching the school for the first time.
I thank the Deputy again for giving me the opportunity to update the House on the position on the employment by schools of substitute teachers.
I thank the Minister for the very detailed response. Even with that, however, I am still concerned about the number of gaps that still exist. I would appreciate it if the Minister could consider them in the context of the new legislation due to be brought forward. Some of the gaps that come to mind immediately are in the case of unqualified personnel who clearly are not registered with the Teaching Council and therefore have not been subject to Garda vetting. It is of great concern that anyone who has not been subject to Garda vetting would have access to a classroom of children. In the appointment process for teachers, I accept, whether they are part-time or permanent, procedures are in place that will ensure Garda vetting. Any teacher qualified since September 2006 has to be registered with the teaching council and would have to undergo Garda vetting. In those instances, however, where it is necessary to employ a substitute teacher, he or she is not subject automatically to Garda vetting. I have concerns about this, given our experiences to date and the times in which we live. Formalising procedures and having authorised websites would make it much simpler for us to ensure people have been vetted. Obviously, vetting only works where someone has had a prior conviction. However, it at least allows us to take every possible step to ensure children's safety. I do not feel we are doing that currently.
The primary responsibility for employing people rests with the employer. It is absolutely vital employers take due care and diligence in cases such as this. I will bring the Senator's concerns to the attention of the Minister for Education and Science. I am sure he will note them and take them into account. I cannot over-stress the onus on an employer to be careful and ensure any decisions on employing substitute teachers, particularly in emergencies, are made with due care.