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The day the police came

When two plain-clothes officers rang John Tallon's door bell one day last summer, his first thought was that his wife had had an accident. Then they told him a pupil had accused him of indecent assault. Nine months later a jury took less than half an hour to clear him of the charges. But John Tallon's nightmare isn't over: he's a marked man, and he's still not back at work. Wendy Wallace talked to him about his ordeal. Portrait by Russell Sach.

It's the foundation of the English legal system, but does it apply to teachers? When they are accused of abusing a child, teachers it seems are presumed guilty. Headteachers suspend, protesters heave bricks and local papers make maximum mileage. When found innocent, the same teachers may, if they are possessed of both luck and courage, claw their way back to some semblance of the life they once took for granted. Along the way, they find out who their friends are.

In recognition of the way the system can destroy innocent teachers - and rob schools of valuable professionals for months on end (see Friday, February 16 and April 13) - David Blunkett announced plans at Easter to set up a network of 26 regionally based co-ordinators to help speed up investigations into allegations, to introduce consistency, and to advise schools. It takes on average nine months to resolve allegations where police and social services are involved; the Government would like to see "all but the most complicated cases" dealt with in less than three months. One of Mr Blunkett's last acts as Education Secretary was to write to all chief education officers announcing his plans, and last week officials at the Department for Education told The TES they hoped to appoint co-ordinators by September.

But it's probably all too late for John Tallon. He has fresh bouquets on the hearth in his living room, and well-wishing cards ranged along every available surface. There are books on the shelves - which he's had a chance to reread - school photos of his three children and a Pre-Raphaelite print over the mantelpiece. But the nightmare that enveloped John Tallon and his family began here nine months ago, and still hangs heavy in the atmosphere.

Mr Tallon, a 46-year-old teacher in his home town of Liverpool, spent the first week of the summer holidays last year like any family man might, tackling the backlog of DIY tasks round the house, mainly in the company of his three sons. The car was off the road and there was food to buy for the family's English bull terrier. The garden needed attention. His wife Clare kept up her lifelong diary habit over those days, noting the day John spent fixing a light fitting, the apple pie she had made and family visits.

When two plain-clothes police officers rang the door bell on a sunny Friday at the end of July, Mr Tallon's first thought was that Clare had had an accident. When they said he had been accused of taking a pupil on excursions and buying her expensive presents, he had no idea what they were talking about. Three charges of indecent assault were to follow. After they'd gone, he couldn't bear to leave the house for two days.

John Tallon left school aged 16, despite his intellectual leanings - "The typical working class thing of having to get out and earn money," he says - but took evening classes in A-level English literature and sociology in the 1970s. At the age of 35, he left his job of 15 years with the Inland Revenue and went to Liverpool University to study history and ancient history. "Collecting money for the government never satisfied me," he says. "Really, in the back of my mind I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to do some good." Clare supported his decision and became the main breadwinner while he studied; he worked during the holidays as an electrician and on building sites and ended up with a 2.2 - "the ballerina's degree". Scouse humour glints through occasionally, like sun struggling to penetrate the clouds over the Mersey.

He did become a teacher, graduating in 1998 from Liverpool Hope University College with a PGCE, and a distinction in educational theory. He became the sort of teacher who, even when talking about the events that led him to the brink of suicide, can still digress into enthusing about his stalled plans to decorate the Year 7 classroom ("I was looking for medieval iconography pieces") or the thrill of a lesson ("A living, breathing entity, full of electrical energy. I had the craftsman's pleasure in good teaching"). One of the four teacher colleagues called to give evidence on his behalf in Liverpool crown court last month, described him as "probably the most naturally gifted teacher" she'd ever met.

Once qualified, Mr Tallon set about finding a job. With a national glut of history teachers, he made 150 applications for posts the length and breadth of the country while doing supply work for a Liverpool agency, Educational Support Services. In his first year, he taught in 19 secondaries in the city, teaching everything from needlework to physics to German. "I set about providing a first-class professional service," he says. He began to get long-term placements and spent a term on a contract in the London borough of Enfield. Back in Liverpool, schools began asking for him by name.

In a statement prepared for the trial, ESS said that "all the feedback was positive and some of the schools he worked in are considered to be difficult placements".

Another testimony, written by the head of a Liverpool secondary where Mr Tallon had worked on long-term supply, read: "He was very popular with students and teachers alike and an excellent classroom practitioner, totally supportive of the ethos of this school ... a man of integrity who forged professional and supportive relationships with all his students."

In December 1999, he was headhunted by a well-regarded secondary school in the city. He started there in January 2000, teaching RE on a short-term contract which could be terminated at 24 hours' notice. In May 2000, after he had been at the school for four months, the headteacher asked him to stay on. He would teach RE and other subjects, and the school would reintroduce classical civilisation at A-level, allowing him to use his specialisation. On July 10, the letter finally arrived confirming the job offer - point 5 on the pay spine and his own form to tutor. John Tallon's dream was about to be realised. "I thought great. That's it. I'll give them the best 15 years I possibly can."

He is an energetic, muscular man who talks with a quick, purposeful intelligence. He has kept his dignity, his Catholic faith, his family and his enthusiasm for teaching. The system has stripped him of pretty much everything else. He is in debt, had no right to anonymity and knows that in Liverpool he will always be associated with the schoolgirl assault case. He developed agoraphobia and a fear of company, gave up running - "I only felt safe in the house" - and still wakes up shouting in the night.

The school, advised by the LEA, lost no time in washing its hands of Mr Tallon. Before the Crown Prosecution Service had even decided whether to take action, the clerk to the governors dispatched a letter informing Mr Tallon that his position at the school had been terminated, "subject to a review" at the end of the police investigation. Because he was between the temporary and permanent jobs, the school claimed it had no obligation to pay his salary. The family had a hellish summer. "I now had no employment, no prospects and the possibility of a police action."

In mid-September, the CPS said it would be prosecuting on three charges of indecent assault, the most serious of which was that he lay on the girl, kissed her and slapped her bottom. Merseyside police had not followed up the witnesses Mr Tallon put forward to prove he could not have been with the 13-year-old pupil in the early days of the summer holidays when she claimed they were together. Nor had they undertaken forensic tests for fingerprints on the car he was supposed to have driven the girl round in, or the phone boxes he was accused of calling her from. The allegations could not have come at a worse time. Eight-year-old Sarah Payne had recently been murdered in West Sussex, and the country was in the grip of anti-paedophile hysteria. "Why else would you leave the civil service to work with children?" a police officer asked him knowingly.

Financial crisis piled in on top of personal crisis, once proceedings were under way. The National Union of Teachers referred Mr Tallon to a firm of solicitors and paid the bill. But once the CPS decided to prosecute he was means tested on Clare's modest salary for the legal fees. (She works at Granada Television, subtitling news programmes for the deaf.) The NUT said rules governing legal aid meant it could not meet the pound;450 shortfall, and could only offer a low-interest loan. He was not entitled to state benefits, and the bank was closing in. "At that point," he says, "I knew I was on my own. It was the lowest point in my life."

Some mornings, while the family were out at school and work, he would sit on the hallway floor contemplating whether the bannisters would take his weight. Only the knowledge that Clare would be left fighting to clear his name dissuaded him from killing himself. Clare sits close to him now, occasionally looking out into the back garden. Neither has slept properly for nine months and her health has suffered. The Tallons have been together for 25 years.

His torment in the lead-up to the trial was deepened by isolation. Former colleagues did not return his phone calls; he later discovered that the head had described him as a "former teacher" and had forbidden teachers from discussing the case with each other or with pupils. Few dared defy the gagging order. Some did not know the identity of the accused until they saw his name in the local papers last month.

Apart from the support given by his family and solicitors, Mr Tallon was alone. Once solicitors had been appointed to his case, contact with union representatives was minimal, he says. To the surprise of of both Mr Tallon and his brief, no union official turned up at Liverpool crown court for the hearing; the NUT representative from the school didn't speak to him. He says the telephone counselling service union officials referred him to was inadequate for the scale of his distress. "Chocolate fireguard syndrome," he says. The NUT's regional office is adamant it did everything it could to help Mr Tallon.

The case came to court last month after a nine-month wait. During the six-day trial, Mr Tallon and his legal team produced the evidence they could have showed the police last summer, given the chance: timed receipts, showing the car was at the mechanic's for repairs at the time he was accused of driving the girl round the countryside; people who were prepared to testify that they had been with him on the contested days; and school records showing he was out of school supervising a Year 10 work placement on the day he was supposed to have approached the girl and given her a locket.

His accuser was a girl he'd taught RE, one of a group of girls who "always said hello", and liked to talk to him in the corridors. Mr Tallon, after all, believed in having a professional relationship with his pupils. "I thought I would always teach with kindness and compassion. I'd never ever turn a child away if they wanted to talk. I'd feign a great interest in what they were telling me." As his barrister told the jury: "In a very proper sense, Mr Tallon loved the children that he taught."

In court, he had to listen to a barrister call his 19-year-old son, also John, a liar, as he stood in the witness box giving evidence for his father. A petrified Clare had her private diary sneered at by the prosecution. He heard the mother of the girl who had made the allegations describe under cross-examination how she found 40 fantasy letters allegedly signed by Mr Tallon, but all written in her daughter's own handwriting. She said she had destroyed the letters. A friend of the girl confessed to the court that she had lied to support her.

On the eve of the verdict, knowing that he might yet be sent to prison, Mr Tallon had to try to explain the situation to 10-year-old Paul. His older boys, John - on an art and design foundation course - and Adam - aged 17 and studying for A-levels - had been kept informed throughout. "There are three child victims in this and they're my children," says Mr Tallon. The next day, April 26, the jury took just 25 minutes to find Mr Tallon not guilty.

Some things have got better for Mr Tallon since then. Despite further management orders not to make contact, some teachers have dared to write to him expressing their dismay over the silence they have been coerced into. "In the end I feel I have to follow my own conscience rather than anything I've been told," wrote one teacher. "Staff are very upset that they have been kept in the dark - it could have been any of us." Pupils and parents have sent messages of support. "To Mr Tallon," reads the card from his Year 11 RE students. "We didn't doubt you for a second. You're a brilliant teacher. Don't give up."

But John Tallon remains in limbo. The school governing body has yet to meet with union representatives and the local authority's legal adviser to determine his employment status. It is standard practice for governing bodies to hold their own deliberations before reinstating teachers. But a so-called "risk assessment" meeting scheduled for today, May 18, has been cancelled by Liverpool LEA with no new date confirmed.

"I'm ready, willing and able to work but I'm not sure what the position is," says Mr Tallon. He feels strongly that all parties should respect the school's promise of a "review" once the court action was over and the NUT has asked for this as a matter of urgency. He is in no doubt that he wants to return to the job that was created for him. "I want full reinstatement - I'd certainly like the back pay." Meanwhile, the supply agency ESS has left numerous messages on his answer machine urging him to come back and work for them.

He hopes his experience will help others, and to that end has agreed to media interviews in the Daily Mail, on local radio and television and on a Channel 5 show with Gloria Hunniford, where he received warm applause from the studio audience. "I've been silent for nine months about a case that should never have come to court," he says. "It's bizarre - a complete fantasy on the part of one child but she was believed and nobody stood back to take account of my side. Now I've got the media's attention for 15 minutes, I feel it's my duty to speak out.

"In some ways we're the most vulnerable people in society. I'd rather this happened to me a thousand times over than any kid suffer in silence. But nobody seems to be there to protect us. I'm the same person. I've done absolutely nothing wrong. We went out to a celebration meal after the verdict and said, 'What are we celebrating? Nothingness'." The most he can hope for now is getting back to where he was when the door bell rang last July.

The head and chair of governors at the school where John Tallon was expecting to work full-time from last September refused to speak to Friday magazine. Liverpool LEA also declined to comment

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