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Dangerous liaisons in class

Is panic over child abuse making us over-react to pupil-teacher relationships? Sophie Kirkham reports

Britain is in a state of moral panic over sexual relationships that begin in the classroom, according to an academic who has written a paper in defence of pupil-teacher affairs.

Dr Pat Sikes, who married her history teacher after falling for him at the age of 14, says that an "erotic charge" in the classroom is an aid to teaching.

The education lecturer at Sheffield university has based her study on interviews with colleagues and pupils conducted over 25 years. She believes around 1,500 pupil-teacher relationships develop every year.

In her paper, "Scandalous stories and dangerous liaisons: when female pupils and male teachers fall in love", she tells of affairs that began, albeit platonically, when one pupil was just 13, and another where a 17-year-old student had a sexual relationship with her 35-year-old study supervisor.

She claims the recent change in the law, which in 2003 criminalised sexual relationships between pupils and teachers, if the pupil is under 18, makes students appear as victims when they are often the instigators of genuine relationships.

Dr Sikes decided to write on the subject after Chris Woodhead, admitted in 1999 that he had had a relationship with a former pupil years before. The former chief inspector said that such experiences could be "educative", sparking a public outcry.

Mr Woodhead denied the affair began while he was still a teacher and a government inquiry decided he had no case to answer.

Dr Sikes said: "Expressions of sexuality provide a major currency and resource in the everyday exchanges of school life... and nowhere more so, perhaps, than in the seductive nature and erotic charge often characteristic of 'good' teaching which provokes a positive and exciting response."

She did not encounter a story of a female teachermale pupil relationship in her researches, based on volunteered information, she has documented one lesbian story and four accounts of gay relationships that began in the classroom.

Dr Sikes met her husband, David, in 1970 on her first day at upper school, aged 14, and his first day as a teacher, aged 22.

"It wasn't until two years later, on the evening that he left the school to take up a post elsewhere that we declared our feelings for and to each other... I returned to school, after the summer vacation as (his) girlfriend," she said.

Dr Sikes claims such teacher-pupil affairs were not uncommon at her liberal comprehensive school in Leicestershire, and were not seen as sordid.

Dr Sikes condemned exploitative relationships and said that her study was based on stories volunteered by those who had no regrets about their relationships.

Children's charities reacted with outrage at Dr Sikes's comments this week.

Natasha Finlayson from ChildLine said: "For Dr Sikes to praise the 'seductive nature and erotic charge' of good teaching is misguided and bizarre at best. The Sexual Offences Act was designed with a welcome emphasis on protecting children and young people, rather than on the rights of the small number of pupils over the age of consent who engage in sexual relationships on equal terms with a teacher."

Phillip Noyes, NSPCC director of public policy, said: "Children spend the majority of their day at school and teachers have a unique relationship with their pupils which should never be abused."

Last month a geography teacher from Bromsgrove, Worcestershire was found guilty of snogging a 15-year-old pupil in her class on three separate occasions, including once in the school broom cupboard.

Shelley White, 25, is due to be sentenced at Leeds crown court later this month. She has been told she will be spared jail, although her name has been added to the Sexual Offenders' Register.

In another case in June, English teacher Nicola Prentice, 25, was given a 12-months suspended prison sentence at Leicester crown court after she admitted sleeping with a pupil at a Nottingham school after he turned 16.

Both women have been banned from teaching.



Felicity and Matthew met and were instantly attracted when she was 17 and he was 35.

After five weeks of flirting, Felicity kissed Matthew during a study session with just the two of them in the room. Several days later, Felicity turned up at Matthew's house, where they chatted over a glass of wine, before ending up in bed together.

Felicity admits she thought her older man was "totally sophisticated", while he fell for her "long blonde hair" and tireless pursuit of him.

The couple were indiscreet and staff at the school informed Felicity's parents, with the result that the relationship ended and Matthew left the school.

Dr Sikes claims Matthew attempted suicide, and Felicity went on to suffer from anorexia for seven years. "They believe that, without the intervention of the school and Felicity's parents, there is a good chance that their relationship would have endured," said Dr Sikes.

The couple are now 61 and 43 and with separate partners.

Under current law Matthew could have been prosecuted.


Lisa and Robert were instantly attracted to each other when she was 13, and he was 23.

They have now been together for more than 10 years, and plan to marry, after starting a physical relationship when Lisa was 17. Robert's colleagues and Lisa's classmates were quickly aware of the flirting between them.

Robert says: "She was like a groupie. She used to wear her skirts hitched up and black tights, and she'd lean against the wall, all casual like...Then she'd go off down the corridor vamping it to the max...

Everyone was aware of the fact she fancied me."

The flirting went on for four years until Lisa joined the fifth form.

Robert says: "At the end of the fifth year she was going to Canada and I said 'Send us a postcard'. When I gave her my address, because it was forbidden stuff the old heart was going thump, thump, thump, because I knew she was going to do something with it."

They became a couple on Lisa's return from holiday.

Under the current law, because the relationship did not become sexual until Lisa left the school to start at tertiary college, it would have been legal.

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