Criminals in the classroom

June 2014

 

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Are teacher education providers selecting the right people?

Student teachers who will ultimately be denied teacher registration are being accepted onto teacher education programmes, casting a question mark over the stringency and consistency of ITE provider selection processes. JUDE BARBACK investigates whether concerns are warranted and whether EDUCANZ might hold the cards for change.

To become a registered teacher in New Zealand, applicants need to satisfy the Teachers Council that they are (or are likely to be) a satisfactory teacher, of good character, qualified to teach, and have a Police vet satisfactory to the Council.

It’s a fairly modest list of requirements, yet nearly 50 applications for teacher registration were declined by the Teachers Council last year. Some were declined for being insufficiently qualified, some for failing to be of good character, and some for having criminal convictions.

Teacher education programmes don’t come cheap. As fees stand at the moment, full-time study of a Bachelor of Education programme from AUT University will set a domestic student back around $5,500 per year for three years, or four if he or she goes on to take the Graduate Diploma in Secondary Teaching; the one-year Graduate Diploma of Teaching (Primary) course from Massey University costs $4,833, on top of the prerequisite bachelor’s degree.

It stands to reason that a student parting with $20,000 to become a teacher expects to become a teacher at the end of the journey. But if teacher applicants are being rejected by the Teachers Council on the grounds of criminal convictions, it begs some serious questions about the entry standards and vetting procedures of initial teacher education (ITE) providers, and the level of transparency under which they engage with prospective students.

A student teacher with a conviction will inevitably be in contact with children during their practicum placements in schools. While this in itself does not justify cause for concern in every case, owing to the supervised nature of practicums and the varying nature of convictions, it does open the door to the possibility of exposing children to someone who will ultimately be deemed unsuitable to teach.

In terms of gaining access to teaching children, there are many points at which an unsuitable person could slip through the net, including at the point of employment by a school and at the point of teacher registration. The unfortunate and high profile cases of two sex offenders in New Zealand schools are evidence that it does happen.

However, these cases in particular have prompted an overhaul in these areas. Recruitment protocols have been strengthened in schools, for example. But has much scrutiny been given to the point where a teaching career potentially begins – the point of acceptance onto an ITE programme?

 

Where to draw the line... and who draws it?

Of course, there are convictions and then there are Convictions. It is important not to put everyone in the same basket. There are certain convictions that would never be considered as suitable for teaching, such as those for sexual offences. The new Vulnerable Children’s Act will formally exclude people from teaching with certain convictions. 

However, it is not so black and white when it comes to lesser convictions.

The Teachers Council’s document (Approval, Review and Monitoring Processes and Requirements for Initial Teacher Education Programmes) specifies that all applicants who are offered a place in an ITE programme must have a Police vet. 

Associate dean of teacher education at University of Waikato, Beverly Cooper, believes practices are fairly consistent across all providers. “No one has open entry – all providers interview, Police vet and call for referees’ reports for all applicants.”

But it does not follow that what is uncovered by a Police vet or referee report will result in one provider making the same decision as another. A conviction is discussed in its own context, and in the wider context of the applicant’s suitability to teach, which can be fairly subjective.

In terms of the weight of the conviction, the aforementioned Teachers Council document also states that when making decisions regarding admission into a programme the provider needs to take account of the severity, recency, age at offending and pattern of offending of convictions. Many people with minor convictions are covered by the Clean Slate Act 2004.

It is generally accepted that in some circumstances previous convictions may be very historic and of a minor nature and ought not to be a bar from teaching.

As Lexie Grudnoff, deputy dean of education at the University of Auckland, says, an applicant who has a five year old conviction for drunk driving and nothing else would be looked at differently from someone who has a pattern of drink driving convictions over five years.

Cooper adds that such decisions are not made lightly.

“Those who have evidence of criminal convictions which we could consider must provide referees statements from professional people such as a school principal that can vouch for the person’s ‘good character’ and who have seen them interact with young people. All applicants for ITE are interviewed face to face and those with a conviction are, in addition, interviewed by the associate dean teacher education and/or the dean.

“Providers of ITE take their responsibilities very seriously and are very careful over who they select. [They] are very aware that there is a possibility that any student with a conviction may not be registered.”

Cooper says if there is any significant doubt about the severity or recency of the offence, student teachers are not shortlisted or interviewed for a programme.

“In most cases the conviction is minor and occurred when they were very young. The student is informed of the risk and often advice is sought from NZTC.”

However, it would seem not all providers take such a stringent approach. Teachers Council disciplinary tribunal member Patrick Walsh says that information he has received suggests that there are some candidates accepted into teaching programmes with more major convictions for assault, drug use and burglary. 

“In relation to these offences, ITE providers need to be mindful that there is a clear public expectation that students will be safe in the hands of teachers and that any person with these convictions who might pose a potential risk ought not to be accepted into teacher training.”

Are Teachers Council’s disciplinary processes pitched at the right level? Walsh believes they are “fair and robust”. He acknowledges that it is a difficult balancing act in which the prospective teacher’s career, reputation and livelihood is weighed against the right of every student to be safe in a school and to be taught by a competent teacher.

Walsh admits to having serious concerns about the current competency process.

“This process is very robust and transparent in a school setting and it seems to me that if a teacher is dismissed for incompetency in a school, then unless there are serious process issues the Teachers Council should move quickly to deregistration rather than offering more professional development.”

He points to international research which demonstrates that students lose two years of learning under an incompetent teacher.

“The test I use is: would I be happy for this teacher to teach my child? If the answer is no, then other parents ought not to have to suffer this teacher either,” says Walsh.

 

Are ITE providers calling the shots?

However, while there is alignment between Council requirements for ITE programme approvals and registration as new teachers, it would seem that ITE providers can still choose to accept students at their own discretion.

Secondary Schools Principals Association president Tom Parsons believes there is a huge variance between training providers’ standards and those in the profession.

“We’re in a stupid situation of having education providers dictate what they’re going to train the profession in without any industry input,” he told the Dominion Post.

Walsh says that although ITE providers are aware of the Council’s policy on criminal convictions, they are not bound to follow it, and can in fact have their own interpretation of this policy.

Walsh speculates that many ITE providers are motivated by “bums on seats” and consequently may fail to apply rigorous standards.

“This results, in my view, in some ITEs setting a low benchmark for those applying for teaching with criminal convictions,” says Walsh.

“The risks associated with this include that people are accepted into teacher training with convictions which would be below the legitimate expectation of public, parents and indeed the teaching profession itself.

“It also has the net effect that some of these teachers will not be approved by the [Council] for registration because they fall below their standard. For me this is unacceptable because it wastes tax payer money training them, and the personal investment from the student.”

But ITE providers claim they are held accountable by the Council. Every ITE programme is approved by the Council, monitored by the Council every two years, and reapproved by the Council every six years.

Teacher Education Forum of Aotearoa New Zealand (TEFANZ), the body that represents all providers who offer degree level ITE programmes meets regularly with the Teachers Council to discuss issues. Cooper, who is the chair of TEFANZ, says, “We all take the same approach”. 

Lexie Grudnoff agrees that the Teachers Council, as the overseeing body and gatekeeper of teacher registration holds ITE providers accountable. She says the Council questions the provider if there are issues regarding an applicant’s convictions.

But it could be argued that by this point it is too late – if the Council has issues with an applicant’s convictions, the implication is that the investment into his or her training is potentially wasted, and a person who has been deemed unsuitable to teach has already been in classrooms during their student teacher placements. While it is of some reassurance to know that the Council feeds back to the provider and that a provider can learn from the experience, is this really acceptable practice?

 

Convictions during the programme

The other potentially difficult area is when convictions occur during the ITE programme.

Teachers Council director Dr Peter Lind says ITE providers have in their programme regulations a requirement for student teachers to inform them if they are charged with an offence while in the programme – depending upon the nature of the charge they could be a risk going out on practicum amongst children.

Student teachers also have a requirement to inform their providers if convicted of an offence and its nature. Lind says if neither of these is followed by the student teacher then the student teacher’s honesty and good character are called into question.

However, Cooper says that unless a student discloses a conviction as per the provider’s policies, they cannot advise that student of the consequences.

She adds that there is no information sharing between the courts and ITE institutions, which can make this a difficult situation for both the provider and the student.

Lind says that it would be impractical for courts to liaise with providers in this way.

“Students are often only listed as a ‘student’ in the court records so the court staff won’t know they are student teachers. To expect them to find out the area of study and then the name of the provider is unrealistic.

“From my contact with providers, on the whole most of them do not have any issue around this matter,” adds Lind.

The problematic aspect is that a new offence, such as an excess breath alcohol offence, for example, can expose convictions previously masked by the Clean Slate Act. The student may have been accepted onto the programme with no record of conviction, but when he or she applies for registration three years later, a list of minor offences that occurred when the student was younger appear when the Police vet is repeated. This, as Cooper acknowledges, “does not look good”.

 

Will EDUCANZ make a difference?

The Teachers Council is soon to be replaced by the Education Council of Aotearoa New Zealand (EDUCANZ) and the proposed structure and function of the new professional body have already suffered much scrutiny and debate.

Walsh believes EDUCANZ has the opportunity to better reflect the Government’s and the public’s expectation that those wishing to teach must reach high professional standards.

“I think the new EDUCANZ body provides an exciting opportunity to front end some of the quality issues we have had in the teaching profession. If we are able to set a high benchmark for entry into the teaching profession including criminal convictions, it will have an overwhelming effect upon the quality of teaching and consequently learning outcomes for students.

“Feedback from principals suggests that the screening process used by some ITE providers is not strong enough to prevent those that are clearly not suited to teaching entering the profession. Addressing this issue must be a top priority for EDUCANZ.”

Walsh says the new body should establish a national standard for those with criminal convictions applying for teaching, which all ITE providers much accept and apply.

His thoughts echo some of the ideas expressed in John Morris and

Rose Patterson’s New Zealand Initiative Teaching Stars report, in which the authors state that entry standards to ITE are too low. Apart from the minimum literacy and numeracy levels required by Teachers Council, entry standards are up to the individual providers and selection processes are “unregulated and variable”. It also states that ITE providers resist failing non-performing trainee teachers.

The Teaching Stars report recommends that EDUCANZ should be charged with lifting the quality of ITE programmes, by accrediting providers based on entry standards and processes, curriculum, and teacher graduate standards. It also suggests that EDUCANZ should explore the possibility of developing a nationally consistent screening tool to select candidates with the right intellectual abilities and personal dispositions for teaching. The report gives the example of an online tool used at the University of Melbourne, called ‘Teacher Selector’ which programme applicants need to complete to assess their suitability for teaching, and suggest EDUCANZ considers adopting such an approach for New Zealand.

However, Massey Institute of Education director Sally Hansen says she would have some trepidation about moving to a standardised approach, as is happening in some other parts of the world, such as North America and Australia.

“I would be very cautious about introducing a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Bev Cooper agrees. She says the introduction of a formal pre-registration process for ITE students is likely to pose some difficulties in terms of resourcing and practicalities.

“The new body could determine if the conviction would lead to registration and signal this to the provider. But decisions for entry are made on a whole range of evidence supplied by the candidate and their referees [regarding their] suitability.

“In addition a face-to-face interview is carried out by staff at the faculties/colleges and includes members of the profession on the selection panels - the Police vet alone does not mean a person is suitable for teaching. Many people without convictions are not accepted for teaching.

“The process would need to be thought through very carefully.”

Indeed it will, as EDUCANZ slowly begins to sprout from the underpinning legislation. It is a difficult balancing act. There are certainly strong arguments to be made for presenting the industry with a one-size-fits-all approach to pre-registration processes, including national selection and screening tools. But there is also an argument for treating individuals as individuals when it comes to deciding their suitability for teaching, and this includes putting any convictions into the appropriate context. Ultimately, it boils down to what is best for New Zealand students, and on that premise, providers and the professional body will surely work together to make the right decisions going forward – we hope. 

 


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