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Herald on Sunday editorial: Secrecy for errant teachers

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No profession asks for greater trust from the public than teaching. Photo / Thinkstock
No profession asks for greater trust from the public than teaching. Photo / Thinkstock

A profession, which school teaching is considered to be, can usually be trusted to discipline itself. Part of that public trust rests on open, accountable disciplinary procedures and the responsibility to expose colleagues who let the profession down.

Lawyers, doctors and the like generally meet these expectations. The Teachers Council does not.

A notice recently posted on its website warns that no person may publish a report of proceedings of its disciplinary tribunal or publish a name or particulars of any party to its proceedings. This little-known rule was quietly adopted by the council in 2004 under authority given to the council in the Education Act 1989. The fact that it has not been strongly enforced, and errant teachers have instead been exposed in the media, is no justification for the rule's existence.

Open justice is supposed to be the rule for all jurisdictions these days and there has to be a good reason given for any suppressions. Exceptions are made for youth and family matters where children are involved, though even the Family Court has opened its doors a little in recent times.

The Teachers Council might have adopted blanket suppression to protect children, as the chairman of its disciplinary tribunal, Kenneth Johnson, suggested in a case last year. But in that case, involving Hone Mutu's behaviour with a pupil at a Kaikohe Kura Kaupapa, he decided the public interest in disclosure was more important.

We doubt the Teachers Council imposed the blanket suppression rule primarily in the interests of the children involved. The privacy of children personally involved in any proceedings can be easily protected by specific orders of a court or disciplinary tribunal.

Neither do we believe the council wants to protect those unworthy of the profession. It has made the rule, we believe, in the mistaken view that secrecy serves the interests of the school and its pupils, and public confidence in the profession.

If those are its motives, the council is deluded. When a staff member is accused of scandalous behaviour, rumour can circulate in a school and its community faster than any disciplinary action can proceed.

It is in the interests of the school, its pupils and innocent teachers that the matter be properly reported and dealt with honestly and openly - that the accused teacher be struck off, or publicly vindicated. It is in the interests of the profession that it is seen to deal strictly with those who abuse the trust that the public places in its members. Nothing undermines people's confidence as surely as the shielding of offenders.

No profession asks for greater trust from the public than teaching. Parents entrust their children to teachers' care for a large part of the day and sometimes at night. No profession should be more open and rigorous in the policing of its members. Yet no other, as the Teachers Disciplinary Tribunal itself has observed, operates under the shroud of secrecy the Teachers' Council desires.

This week, the Herald on Sunday formally asked the council to rescind Rule 32(1), which we have been advised it can do under its statutory power. If it declines, the Minister of Education can move a notice of motion in Parliament under the Regulations (Disallowance) Act. If necessary, we will ask Hekia Parata to do that.

We understand the new website warning follows Teachers Council discussions about starting to enforce the ill-conceived suppression rule.

Sadly, this shows a distrust of public scrutiny and an attempt to cover up its mistakes. It can rescind this rule quickly and it must. Teaching, more than most professions, proclaims itself to be not a business but a pure public service. More than any other, it ought to be open and accountable.

- Herald on Sunday

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