Legal: Making the term “unsuitable to teach” more suitable 

The Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal has made it clear that just because a teacher has been charged with an offence, it does not mean that the disciplinary ground of “unsuitable to teach” has been made out.

Section 92 (2) (i) of the Education (Queensland College of Teachers) Act 2005 states that the “not suitable to teach” ground for disciplinary action is taken to apply when “the teacher has been charged with a serious offence and the charge has been dealt with”.

In this context, “dealt with” can mean conviction, acquittal or even a failure to reach a verdict.

This phrasing in the act has meant that teachers have often been judged to be “unsuitable to teach”, yet the effect of orders issued by the Tribunal mean that the teacher finds themselves permitted to return to teaching immediately.

Teachers may be tempted to agree they are “unsuitable to teach” in the expectation that their admission will resolve the matter more quickly, relying on the Tribunal’s orders to permit a return to teaching.

Having teachers who are labelled “unsuitable to teach” under the act but still working in the classroom does not pass “The Courier-Mail test” and, more importantly, “unsuitable to teach” is a demeaning label for any teacher whose registration remains intact and who may have done little, if anything, wrong.

In this recent case, an elderly male teacher had faced charges of indecent dealing with children, with the allegations centred on his tickling of children around the waist. After two court cases, the jury remained unable to reach a verdict on the criminal charges and he was discharged completely from the criminal process without any findings against him.

The Queensland College of Teachers then filed a disciplinary referral alleging that the teacher was unsuitable to teach, despite the fact that none of the criminal charges had been proven and the teacher had admitted only to tickling a number of students in a manner that was not indecent. Regardless, the matter had dragged on for a number of years and the teacher was anxious to have it finalised.

The Tribunal chose this matter to clarify the interpretation of the act, and on 23 May 2016 it made the decision that s 92(2) did not automatically deem the teacher unsuitable to teach, just because he had been charged with offences. The Tribunal found that the ground must be established based on the facts and circumstances that exist at the time of the hearing, meaning that just because a teacher has been charged with a serious offence, it does not automatically mean they will be found unsuitable to teach.

With that matter now clear, the Tribunal found that the teacher’s conduct was not indecent, violent or sexual and noted it had not been accompanied by any comments of a sexual or suggestive nature. They said that although the conduct transgressed professional boundaries, it was not conduct which made the teacher “unsuitable to teach at the present time.”

So in this case, the client, despite having been charged with a serious offence and having made some admissions of conduct that was below the standard of behaviour the community or teaching profession would expect of a teacher, was found to be suitable to teach. More importantly, he was not labelled unsuitable to teach for conduct which may have been unwise, but was never sinister.

Teachers faced with any criminal offence or teacher registration investigation should seek the assistance of the Union to ensure their rights are properly protected.

Edmund Burke                                                                                                                 Holding Redlich Lawyers

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 121 No 8, 11 November 2016, p27