Pupil power: teachers in crisis.

 By Robert Whston FRSA   Jan 5th 2011

Suicide is the latest weapon wielded by disaffected school children. Not their own suicide – more’s the pity one is tempted to inwardly reflect – but that of their teachers who some pupils or a group of pupils may simply dislike.

In a child’s armoury is, classroom disruption, non-compliance, wilful behaviour and a whole host of others but the most toxic of all has to be allegations of a sexual nature.

It stabs at the very vitals of the principle of “in loco parentis” and demolishes the parent-teacher confidence bond. But increasingly this has been the weapon of choice. Some pupils have had no compunction in making maliciously false allegations against teachers whom they dislike – and knowing full well the consequences.

In March 1999, Crispin Blunt MP described to the House of Commons how 700 people had attended the funeral of one 31-year-old teacher – cut down by pupil innuendo. They had come to honour the memory of a popular, committed teacher who took his own life while facing charges of behaving improperly with pupils in his care. [1]

He also voiced his fears over the future of the profession and the gender bias that political correctness was creating:

“There has been much discussion about the consequences of the absence of male role models for many children, not least those of single mothers. However, if we encourage a climate of paranoia and suspicion, it is hardly surprising that many young men are unwilling to enter the profession. The Bill offers the profession some protection against false allegations and it should lead to men more readily entering the profession and doing so with more confidence.”

Some years ago it was noted how the teaching profession in particular was getting more ‘on side’ with the idea of anonymity for defendants in sex offences. They were finding –  as we had found in our survey of the data – the abuses of the post-1988 process which granted life-long anonymity for complainants regardless of whether the complaint was true or not, itself amounted to an abuse of justice.

Between 1991 and 1998 there had been 974 police investigations into sexual abuse allegations made by pupils against teachers (as recorded by NAS/UWT members).

In 792 of the 974 cases no grounds were discovered for prosecution. Publicity in 80% of those cases did serious injustice to innocent teachers.

One of the ‘big three’ teaching trade unions, the National Union of Teachers (NUT), was wholly out of step with NAS/UWT (National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers). The NUT has, over several decades, shown itself to be a more militant or hard line union, and so it proved to be over the matter of malicious allegations against teachers.

Whereas the NAS/UWT supported the 1999 move to support the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” for its members (Bill 78), the NUT declined to support the Bill.

The reasons given appear to be that it might ‘protect the guilty as well as the innocent’ and that “there is potential that the Bill could shield those guilty of serious crimes until after court proceedings are concluded.”

“Bizarrely, the National Union of Teachers does not appear to support the principle of innocent until proven guilty for its members. “It has declined to support the Bill as it will protect the guilty as well as the innocent … there is potential that the Bill could shield those guilty of serious crimes until after court proceedings are concluded. . . . I find the contrast between the NAS/UWT and the NUT most marked.” said Crispin Blunt.

However, by July 2010 it too had altered its position:

  • “If false or misleading information and rumours are circulated in the school community about a teacher the long lasting impact on innocent teachers can be devastating.”

The third of the teaching unions, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), representing approximately 160,000 teachers issued a press release in Nov 2010:

  • “We continue to believe that school staff who have an allegation made against them should have a right to anonymity whilst the allegation is being investigated, up to the point that they are charged with a criminal offence.
  • In our experience the publication of allegations prior to this point makes it much more difficult for innocent staff to resume their work and career. ATL also maintain that any reference to an investigation which subsequently proves to be false should be recorded very carefully to ensure no assumption of guilt can be read into it.”

Stonewalling and sandbagging killed off any reform in 1999.

The haemorrhaging of teachers leaving the profession nevertheless continued apace throughout the 2000s. Even a tax free “Hello Bonus” of £5,000 ($US 10,000) begun in 2000 – 01 for anyone joining a Teacher Training course plus a further £4,000 when joining the profession via a state school, still failed to fully staunch the flow. As the rate of turnover quickened it off-set any numerical gains in qualified teachers recruited.

In November 2004 a Consultation Paper was launched on a new process for dealing with allegations against teachers and school staff. The consultation covered the reduction of time scales, new procedures to improve the management of cases and, significantly, advice by the Association of Chief Police Officers that anyone under investigation should not be named until they are charged with an offence.

It could perhaps have been anticipated that progress would be slow bearing in mind that the government was reeling from a succession of child abuse scandals that it seemed unable to bring under control. It was in Nov 2001 that schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman murdered at Soham.

This lead to an independent inquiry being set up to look into child protection measures, record-keeping, vetting and information-sharing, chaired by Sir Michael Bichard. The Inquiry’s recommendations would not be published until March 2005, but its findings were published in June 2004.

Nonetheless, the question of false allegations re-surfaced in 2004. By Dec 2004 Hansard (Column 762), records an extensive Commons debate with Tony Cunningham MP asking the Minister for School Standards, David Miliband, what steps he was taking to protect teachers from malicious allegations made against them by pupils ?

As a former teacher, Tony Cunningham MP, could speak with real knowledge of the matter.

The minister, David Miliband, admitted that both the trauma of abuse of trust and the trauma of unfounded allegations needed to be tackled.

  • “This area requires careful application of the law and due diligence in every case. I think that the trauma both of abuse of trust and of abuse of teachers needs to be dealt with in a serious way by this House, and not in a posturing way.”

Sir Patrick Cormack MP joined in the fray asking if the minister (David Miliband), agreed that the most important consideration was to preserve anonymity until we know that the man, or woman, charged is found guilty ?

David Miliband could not give that assurance but did concede that it was certainly the governments’ view that teachers should have their anonymity preserved until they are charged, if they were charged !

He backed up (excused) his position by stating that very few teachers are charged – about 17% of all such cases end in a prosecution (overlooking the damage done to the remaining 83% which concerned members). He also highlighted that about 70% of all cases are currently dealt with within three months, but that this figure would rise to 95% because ‘speed is of the essence.’

In addition, he pointed to the Assoc. of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) which had issued new guidance to preserve anonymity (but only up to the point, it turned out, of being charged, which was effectively no anonymity at all – see “Anonymity for defendants: a history since 1976” (https://falseallegations.wordpress.com/2011/01/01/11/)

David Miliband was thus relying on the word of ACPO and the Press Complaints Commission which had promised its members would voluntarily take a responsible approach to the matter:

  • “The Press Complaints Commission guidance is very clear about what those responsibilities are, and I would expect the press to follow that guidance.”

More empty gestures came in the form of Miliband reminding the House that;

  • “ . . . the sanctions on false and malicious allegations are extremely serious, including charges of perjury and perverting the course of justice.”

The lack of perjury cases brought per year ( see “Perverting the course of justice” https://falseallegations.wordpress.com/2010/12/31/10/ ) and the unobtainable figures for the number of cases brought for perverting the course of justice’ makes that assurance ring hollow.

Fortunately this naval gazing at exclusively the problems faced by teachers was interrupted by Chris Bryant MP who widened the issue by asking about those working in ‘youth support services.’ The terrible problem of poisonous malicious allegations, he said, had fed into that area of society too.

The first sign that the government might be talking the issue seriously came in his next reply. “When we speak of unfounded allegations and of anonymity”, said Mr. Miliband [then]. “simply to speak of teachers is not sufficient, given the range of professionals who work with young people. The safeguards that we want for children and for staff should apply to all those who work with young people in and out of schools.”

Tim Collins MP pointed to what was the fatal flaw in the government’s idea. Referring to the many teacher unions and the concession of preserving anonymity he added that promises and exhortations were not enough:

“ . . . But he knows that they want more than simple guidance from ACPO and exhortations to the media from the Minister, so why will he not act on what the teacher unions have specifically requested; legislation to guarantee anonymity in those circumstances ?”

Tim Collins then revealed the effectiveness of the ACPO guidance. A head teacher on the Isle of Wight had committed suicide (2004) because his details were released in that way. Details had been published in the local media, placed there either by people in schools or by the police and no one had noticed the ‘official guidance’ appertaining to such matters.

Mr. Collins asked why precisely the Minister would not legislate given that his party (Conservatives) is committed to support legislation on this matter.

“ . . . We will support any legislation that this Government introduce. If they continue to refuse to introduce that legislation, we will introduce it in a teacher protection Bill in the first Queen’s Speech of the next Conservative Government.”

The above statement silences those MPs, mainly women, who complained that the rush towards anonymity for sex offence defendants came ‘out of the blue’ and was not in the Tory Party’s manifesto, etc, etc.

END


[1] He faced charges jointly with a second teacher who was later acquitted of any guilt.

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