Sinn Fein education minister John O’Dowd admits ‘oversight’ over right to teach powers

TUV leader Jim Allister
TUV leader Jim Allister

The power to remove a teacher’s eligibility to teach in Northern Ireland’s schools has been lost after a “breakdown in communication,” the department of education has revealed.

In a statement released to MLAs on Tuesday, minister John O’Dowd admitted the oversight – dating back to 2009 – was a “serious” and “extremely regrettable” issue.

John O'Dowd MLA Minister of Education

John O'Dowd MLA Minister of Education

However, Mr O’Dowd claimed the mix-up over the need to have the necessary legislation in place does not leave pupils vulnerable.

He said: “I want to reassure members that the gap in provision does not affect an employer’s ability to dismiss a teacher for gross misconduct. More importantly, separate legislation already exists for the barring from teaching of persons deemed unsuitable to work with children and young people.”

Mr O’Dowd added: “I want to apologise to the House and the wider public for this issue which has recently come to light. When the General Teaching Council was established in 2002, it was intended that it would assume responsibility for the regulation of teachers.

“It was also intended that the department’s existing teacher eligibility powers would be repealed and provision was made for this in the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 (the 1998 Order).

“The transfer of this function to the council did not take place within the timeframe originally envisaged.

“However, the department is now taking this work forward in the proposed General Teaching Council Bill.”

In a separate statement he later added: “I acknowledge that the repeal of the department’s powers to provide this additional safeguard is a serious matter.

“My priority is and always has been the protection of children and young people in the local education system.

“At no time were child protection practices negatively impacted or compromised by this issue.

“Since being informed of this issue, I have ensured that swift action be taken to set it right.”

Despite the minister’s reassurance, TUV leader Jim Allister said the five-year gap in appropriate legislation being in force indicated “an unfit minister and sloppy department”.

Mr Allister said the original problem arose under the “disastrous tenure” of previous Sinn Fein minister Caitriona Ruane.

“A bit more focus on detail and less on dogma would have prevented this gaffe.

“The resulting inability of the department to remove a teacher’s right to teach, no matter what serious misconduct they might have indulged in, is a serious matter, no least in the context of child protection.

“A more credible explanation of how this arose, than ‘a breakdown in communication’ within the department, is required from the minister,” he said

Mr Allister said the minister would now adopt a “sticking plaster” approach to the matter, and added: “The failure to realise the import of the 2009 repeal of the department’s powers in this regard, as they existed in the Education Order of 1998, was not just a failure of the minister but also of the education ‘scrutiny’ committee, which equally failed to adequately interrogate what was proposed.

“All round it was a failure in the exercise of devolved powers by Stormont, but primarily by the minister.”

The serious oversight came to light at a Department of Education briefing at Stormont early last month.

Addressing the education committee, Mrs Faustina Graham of the department told the MLAs that when the repeal of existing legislation happened in 2009, “its consequences were not adequately assessed” in the department.

Mrs Graham said: “While not for one moment underestimating the gravity of this matter, I want to outline the context in which these powers, albeit erroneously, have been exercised since 2009. In all the cases that were considered, the misconduct issue had already been fully investigated by employers and the individual teachers concerned had been dismissed from their positions. In almost all cases considered, the teachers had already been barred from working with children under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups (NI) Order 2007.”