Probes into serious teacher misconduct are taking almost 20 months to resolve, almost eight months longer than government targets.
The figures suggest the Teaching Regulation Agency has struggled to get a grip on a backlog of cases following the suspension of panel hearings during the early stages of Covid.
Officials are confident virtual hearings and extra staff can help clear it by next April, but new figures lay bare how long accused teachers, their employers and others affected by misconduct are being left in limbo.
‘Inordinate’ waits for justice
The TRA, which investigates and sanctions teachers over serious misconduct, aims to ensure the average case involving a hearing is resolved within 52 weeks.
The average case took 45 weeks in 2019-20, but leapt to over 66 weeks in 2020-21 – dubbed “inordinate” by school leaders at the time. The TRA’s new annual report reveals this now stands at 85 weeks for cases in 2021-22.
The regulator also aims to finish its probes and refer cases to hearings within 20 weeks, but hit almost 35 weeks in the year to April. Such long waits come on top of the time taken by school and police investigations.
The annual report says Covid is the cause for a “backlog of cases”. It also cites hearing postponements and the capacity of teachers appointed to sit on panels.
An NEU spokesperson told Schools Week last year schools were “reluctant, in the light of staffing shortages, to release senior staff members who are also panellists”. They also highlighted “longstanding” issues beyond Covid, such as delays exchanging bundles.
A list of key operational risks facing the TRA in its report includes not having enough people to make up panels to deliver hearings within the one-year target.
“This could open TRA up to challenge on the delays in concluding cases, causing stress to the teacher and witnesses involved,” the report adds.
The issue could also mean cases drag out beyond legal firms’ contract terms, risking further delays, the TRA noted.
Virtual hearings by default
But the TRA says there is a “plan in place” to clear backlogs, and the number of hearings scheduled in 2020-21 “exceeded expectations”. More panellists have been appointed, and it moved to a “virtual by default” hearing model in January. This will “allow greater flexibility when scheduling hearings”.
The report says the proportion of teachers banned once cases get to hearing stage has remained consistent at 70 per cent “despite the introduction of virtual hearings”. The TRA says this “demonstrates the process continues to be fair”.
Overall, the TRA received 714 referrals in 2020-21. It decided to investigate 298 cases – though this may include some from previous years. It took no further action on 246 cases, as they did not meet thresholds or fall under the TRA’s remit.
It held 149 hearings, resulting in 108 teacher bans, 20 where teachers were named-and-shamed but not banned, 11 where allegations were upheld but not deemed serious misconduct, and 10 where teachers were cleared altogether.
Another 14 hearings involved requests for bans to be set aside, with 10 granted after teachers persuaded panels they were “suitable” to return to teaching. But the TRA won three appeals and two judicial review applications by banned teachers.
Meanwhile the TRA report reveals 32 personal data-related “incidents” occurred in the year, with two significant enough to be referred to the Information Commissioner’s Office as they could cause “harm or distress to individuals if released or lost”.
Three complaints about the regulator are also being investigated by an independent ombudsman. One questioned why the complainant was “not directly advised” about a ban, and another questioned why a case was not closed at initial referral “due to no jurisdiction”.