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Child abuse: when to suspend a teacher

Suspensions of teachers following allegations of child abuse have been causing growing concern ("Never teach alone, says MP," TES, September 19).

Fresh guidance on how to handle allegations, published by the National Employers' Organisation for School Teachers in 2002, was not endorsed by the unions, but remains the only official guidance until the Government issues new advice.

Local education authorities and schools are urged to agree local procedures for handling the new criminal offence of abuse of trust, which covers the development of inappropriate relationships between a teacher and a pupil who is over the age of consent but under 18. Allegations by children may be false, malicious or misplaced, and may be deliberate or innocent.

Regardless of motive they may also be well-founded, and, therefore, schools need processes for the early assessment, investigation and management of any allegation.

Heads need to make an initial assessment. If a child suggests that a criminal act might have been committed, an immediate referral to the area child protection committee would be in order. Or the allegation might indicate inappropriate behaviour or poor practice by a teacher which could be dealt with by the school. Only if allegations are demonstrably false will further investigation not be warranted.

Investigations might be carried out by social services under local child protection procedures, or by the police where possible criminal acts have occurred, or by the school under its own disciplinary procedures.

Decisions about suspending a teacher against whom allegations have been made are a matter for the head (or the governors if the allegations are against the head). But the head no longer has to make the decision alone. A nominated LEA lead officer should be consulted before deciding whether to suspend.

Suspension is most likely when the head considers a pupil to be clearly at risk, or the allegation is so serious that dismissal for gross misconduct is possible, or in order to allow investigations to proceed unimpeded. It is least likely when the allegations are trivial. Alternative strategies should also be considered, such as paid leave of absence, mutual agreement not to come into school, different duties or locations, or removal from contact with the pupil making the allegation.

Suspension is a neutral act, not disciplinary action, and will be on full pay.

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