Since June 2019, the social turmoil has brought unprecedented impact on and challenges to the whole society, including the education sector. The Education Bureau (EDB) and some schools have received a number of complaints concerning teachers’ professional misconduct. The EDB has all along been providing guidelines for handling complaints. Given that some complaints were fairly complicated, the EDB, on the basis of pertinent experience of the bureau and the school sector (including schools’ good exemplars) in the past two years, further provided schools with an investigation checklist and a template of school investigation report last week for reference purposes to meet the operational need of schools and enable their management to handle complaints effectively and appropriately. However, one teachers’ union has falsely claimed that the guidelines we issued were unjust. In making such an allegation, the union not only dismissed the concerted efforts of the EDB and the sector in enhancing the school complaint management mechanism, but also gave others the impression that they were not acting professionally and impartially. In response to such regrettable remarks, the EDB considers it necessary to shed more light on the issue here.
If the investigation checklist and the template of school investigation report are not to be provided, then how could we enhance school complaint management?
All public sector and Direct Subsidy Scheme schools have, under the Enhanced School Complaint Management Arrangements, put in place their school-based mechanism and procedures for handling complaints, in order to follow up on and respond more aptly and efficiently to the comments or complaints (including complaints against teachers) received during daily operation. The EDB has been rendering support to schools in various aspects, including issuance of the template of the Guidelines for Handling School Complaints that help schools develop and refine their school-based mechanism and procedures for handling complaints, introduction of the Enhanced Arrangements to stakeholders (e.g. newly-appointed principals and members of parent-teacher associations), and provision of training on complaint handling, communication, mediation skills.
As schools have to deal with different issues that emerge from time to time, the EDB always keeps in view the latest situation, and provides support that is appropriate to schools’ prevailing needs, including the recently-released supplementary materials such as the investigation checklist and the template of school investigation report. With such aids, schools are able to promptly act on the comments or complaints from parents, students or the public in accordance with their school-based mechanism and procedures for handling complaints.
If no follow-up action is to be taken on anonymous complaints, then how could we ensure the well-being of students?
The professional conduct of teachers has a direct bearing on students’ well-being. If the allegations are clearly about words or deeds which violate the moral standards acceptable to the general public or jeopardise students’ safety or healthy development , the EDB has the responsibility to seriously follow up and request the school concerned to conduct an investigation even when they are made anonymously. We always stress that schools should, in accordance with their school-based mechanism, decide if follow-up actions are needed for an anonymous complaint in light of its nature and gravity. Paragraph 1.3 of the Guidelines for Handling School Complaints clearly states that under special circumstances (e.g. when there is sufficient evidence or when the case is serious or urgent), the school may decide whether to follow up on an anonymous complaint, or treat it as a case for internal reference and inform the subject of the complaint about the allegation for the purpose of seeking appropriate remedy and improvement.
In fact, there have been cases where the teachers’ union referred anonymous teachers’ complaints to the EDB without disclosing details of the complainants and requested for follow-up. Given their severity, such cases did receive the EDB’s serious attention and handling. The teachers’ union was having double standards when it argued that the EDB and schools should neglect anonymous complaints. Its argument was far from convincing.
If the subject is allowed to know whether the complaint is anonymous or the identity of the complainant, then how could we protect the complainant?
When handling complaints, including investigation of suspected professional misconduct of teachers, schools have to comply with the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance and strictly adhere to the principle of confidentiality. With complainants’ consent, schools may disclose their identity if they so wish. Without complainants’ consent, schools should neither disclose their identity to the subjects nor provide any information that makes the complainants identifiable.
Upon receiving a complaint involving suspected professional misconduct, the EDB will request the school concerned to conduct investigation and submit reports. The school should, in light of the nature and severity of the complaint, assign appropriate designated staff or set up a task force to handle the complaint according to the school-based mechanism. To ensure fairness in complaint handling and to the subject, the school should let the teacher concerned know the allegation and have adequate opportunities for making representations. If necessary, the school may meet the persons involved and review other relevant information. During the process, the EDB maintains communication with the school and helps to determine the scope of investigation. If needed, the EDB will ask the school to clarify the findings of its investigation report, submit supplementary information or even launch a more in-depth investigation.
If there is no requirement that schools should furnish a reply/investigation report within one month upon receiving a complaint, then how could we ensure that urgent matters receive immediate attention?
In the event that an allegation about a teacher’s professional misconduct is true, failure to take prompt action will leave students susceptible to undue influence or even harm day after day. On the contrary, an untrue allegation will make the innocent teacher suffer unnecessarily over a lengthy period of time. As such, schools should swiftly investigate into a complaint about the professional misconduct and, within one month upon receipt of the complaint, submit a copy of the reply letter, their investigation report, etc. to the EDB for follow-up action. As for complaints that are extremely complicated, schools may, if necessary, request for more time to conduct investigation. The EDB will, depending on the circumstances, consider the applications and render support to the schools. Moreover, the EDB will review the relevant internal procedures, and expedite the handling of cases of suspected professional misconduct while ensuring that the subjects of complaints have been given opportunities to make representations and all pertinent information has been thoroughly considered.
If investigation into complaints is perceived as an act of oppression, then how could we safeguard the professionalism of the education sector when wrongs are covered up?
Teachers play a vital role in passing on knowledge and nurturing students’ character, and their every word and deed have a far-reaching impact on students’ growth. Parents and the community at large truly expect our teachers to possess not only solid professional knowledge but also high standards of morality. The EDB is committed to promoting the development of the education profession and fostering the culture of respecting teachers and their teaching. Needless to say, we count on educators’ collaboration in achieving these ends.
We must emphasise that the vast majority of teachers are professional and responsible. That is why we cannot allow a few black sheep to tarnish teachers’ professional image and affect students’ learning and growth. We will continue to handle cases of suspected professional misconduct in a serious and prudent manner to safeguard students’ well-being, uphold teachers’ professionalism and maintain society’s confidence in the teaching profession. It will also do justice to all the teachers who are professional and responsible.
27 May 2021 (Thursday)