A couple of months ago - towards the end of March - I started on a journey to hell. I'm not quite back yet. The scenery was awful, the hospitality definitely below any star rating you could invent, and the accommodation, well, basic.
I teach Year 3, and, like many men in primary schools, I am the only male teacher on staff. Maybe what has happened to me is part of the reason few men are tempted into teaching younger children.
At the end of a weekly after-school staff meeting, my headteacher asked me to come to her office. She calmly informed me that the mother of a girl in my class had made an allegation against me. It was nonsense, of course, but she had asked the mother to come in to see her first thing in the morning. She had assured the parent that it could all be sorted out and it was probably a misunderstanding.
I was alleged to have been touching the child "inappropriately" every day since I had started at the school in September. The mother added that she had been abused as a child and did not want the same thing to happen to her daughter; that she had spoken freely at home about her own experiences so that her own seven-year-old would recognise what was going on if something similar should happen to her.
I had a sleepless night trying to work out what I might have done that would lead the child into making such an allegation. I could think of nothing. The following day the head and I waited for the mother to arrive. She didn't turn up. I suggested to the head that she might have done one of three things - removed the child from school, reported the allegation to social services or gone to the police. Whichever way, we both had things to do. I would telephone my union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers; the head would telephone the local education authority.
The ATL was very supportive, and said all the right things to keep me calm: the union would organise a solicitor if needed; the regional official would be in touch as soon as possible; many such allegations are made these days and few are substantiated or come to court. The head arranged for a colleague to take my class for the rest of the morning.
Over lunch, I was again called into the head's office. She had received a call from the police. Could I be at the police station by 1pm? It was already 12.45pm. She explained that this was unlikely and was told that if I didn't appear at the station, they would send someone to arrest me at school.
I made another call to the ATL rep, who suggested I ask the police officer handling the case to postpone the interview until the following day, by which time the association could arrange legal representation for me. The police refused this request and told me they would arrange for a solicitor to be present if necessary.
I went to the police station expecting to be "assisting with enquiries". How wrong or naive could I have been? Whatever happened to the principle of innocent until proven guilty? Two grim-faced officers, one male, one female, met me and took me into a pleasant meeting room. Neither responded to my outstretched hand. They checked that they had the correct person in front of them. "Are you aware that an allegation has been made against you?"
"Yes," I replied.
"As this is an allegation of a serious sexual assault, I have to arrest you and you will be detained here and interviewed formally."
My head spun while the female officer formally arrested me using the well-practised caution: "You do not have to say anything, butI" The male officer said nothing.
I was then taken to the custody area of the police station and, just as you see in the cop shows on television, the officer repeated the allegation to the custody sergeant, who went through the process of admitting me. I was given various pieces of paper, and had my rights explained. I signed some of these papers although I obviously had not read them thoroughly. I asked to see the duty solicitor. I was then asked to remove my tie, belt and shoelaces. My jacket was taken from me - it had a cord in the hem. My personal belongings were logged and locked in a special zippy-bag (those could be handy in school, I thought). I was then taken and locked up in a cell.
The next two hours were the longest in my life. My previous experience of police stations was limited and I had certainly never been in a cell before. Officers kept looking through the flap in the door to check on my wellbeing. On one of these occasions I was asked for a contact number for my wife, as a warrant had been issued to search my home and "they wouldn't want to cause any damage by breaking down the door" the officer said with a wry smile.
Two police officers searched my home for child pornography. The duty solicitor arrived and explained what would happen during the forthcoming interview. He told me: answer all the questions to the best of your ability. Don't try to dodge anything. Be straight. Just before the interview began an officer asked to speak to my solicitor. The police searching my home had seized 20 photographs of children. None of them was pornographic - they were of children from the waist up and in school uniform. When the solicitor returned and told me this, I had to laugh. In the previous summer term, my class had been doing work on portraits as part of their art work. I had taken their pictures so they could enlarge, reduce, copy, and colour them like a Warhol, and so on.
The formal taped and videoed interview began. After flatly denying the allegation that was put to me, I was questioned closely about how I taught. Why did I sit next to children to mark their work? Why didn't I stand next to them or call them to my desk? How close did I sit to the children when marking their work? Am I aware when children are happy or sad in class? Why do children sit in different places for different lessons? Did I teach sex education? Why had I kept photographs of children I was no longer teaching?
The more sensible questions about possible reasons for the child making the allegations were few. Perhaps her mother's conversations with her about child abuse had fed her imagination? Maybe she wanted more attention from home? Mother had failed to turn up on parents' evening, so perhaps the child felt aggrieved at that? The child had recently lost Friday afternoon "golden time" because of her behaviour - was that another factor? I could think of no "real" reason. If we could get into a child's mind so easily, wouldn't teaching be so much easier?
After more than an hour of questioning I was released on bail for two weeks while the police continued their enquiries. Outside the police station my solicitor gave me an excellent piece of advice: "Go to see your doctor. You are in shock. You will need some sort of medication to help you through this." He was right. Diazepam helped to stop the panic attacks and helped me get some sleep. An antidepressant is helping to prevent me slipping into a trough of despondency. I am likely to be on the latter drug for some months.
The duty solicitor proved so helpful that my union agreed I could keep him as my legal representative. That's why you pay those dues every month.
The intensity of the emotions my family and I have gone through over the past month has been extraordinary. I have two daughters, one in her final year at university and one at a local high school. My wife told my eldest daughter about what was happening by telephone. She was clearly upset and immediately said she would be home by the weekend. She wanted to be with her family. I told my younger daughter myself. She was pale as I told her all the lurid details.
"You can ask me any questions you like and I will give you honest, direct answers," I said.
"I don't need to ask you anything," she said. "You're my dad."
I then told her that she must not discuss the incident with anyone. Not even her best friend. Not even the in-school counsellor. She understood the implications.
Tears have flowed liberally. Anger has been replaced by sadness. I have felt uneasy about leaving the house during the day. If I bump into someone I know, will they ask me why I'm not in school?
How do you prove that you have not done something? My classroom is an open-plan room. Other adults are in and out all day. Colleagues pass by all the time. I have been observed teaching on many occasions and comments are often made about my excellent relationship with the children. There were 22 other children in the room when I am supposed to have perpetrated these acts of indecent assault, yet they say nothing and have seen nothing. These acts have allegedly been happening for seven months, during which time the child has come to school happily every day.
My headteacher telephoned me to ask me to be in school at 8am so I could be suspended. Next morning, accompanied by my wife, I found myself sitting in my headteacher's office. A representative from the LEA's personnel department was present. My head was on the verge of tears. "I have prepared a note," she said, "of what I need to say to you so that I don't miss anything out. Do you mind if I read it to you?"
The gist of what she had to say was simple enough: "Suspension is a neutral act. It does not imply guilt. It is there to protect you. You must not speak to any member of staff about the case. You must leave the building immediately and return only by invitation. A member of staff will be allocated to keep you informed about what is going on in school that is unrelated to the investigation." That was it. But I assure you that it does not feel neutral or protective when it happens to you.
Two weeks later, on the way to the police station, my solicitor called me on my mobile to tell me the police were not ready to question me further, but that I still had to turn up to meet the bail conditions. It was quite clear that the officers had nothing to question me about. To be fair to the custody sergeant, he gave his colleagues a hard time. "It's not fair to be getting this gentleman here when you clearly are not ready. When will you be ready? I am only prepared to bail this gentleman once more. This is a stressful situationI" Bail was set again for two further weeks, but the officers were reminded that they should call me in earlier, if possible.
Two weeks passed and no early call came. Then, an hour before I was due to appear at the police station, the police called to say I need not attend; that there was no corroborative evidence to support what the child had said and they would be taking the investigation no further. The woman police constable said no file would be kept on me and, under her breath: "I wouldn't do your job for anything."
It may seem strange, but I felt cheated that I was spoken to on the telephone. I wanted the two investigating officers in front of me - a sort of final closure to the events.
I do not feel particularly "happy" at the outcome of this dramatic incident in my life. I suppose I should feel euphoric, but I feel numbed by the experience and radically changed by it. Right now I am not sure I want to set foot in a classroom again. When I look at the pain and anguish my family has been through, I ask myself, is it worth it? My youngest daughter has been very withdrawn over the past month, but my wife overheard her saying to one of our adult friends, who had been taken into our confidence, that she felt proud she had kept the information to herself and not discussed it with her friends. I am proud of her, too.
My friends and colleagues have been very supportive: some sent a card to say, "Hang on in there"; one sent me a poem, which I still cannot read without crying; others have taken the risk of making contact and expressing their support. One former colleague (she knows who she is) was simply a tower of strength. Without that support I don't know how I would have coped.
My local authority has been quietly supportive, while at the same time maintaining a detached professionalism in its contact with me. Its staff have to be impartial. I now have to face a review of the case with them that I hope will lead the governors of my school to lift my suspension. The LEA people tell me we will then meet to discuss where I go from here and how they can support me further. I will take up their offer of confidential counselling.
As teachers we all give an enormous amount to the children we teach. It saps our energy, but we discover new reserves or recharge our batteries and keep going because we care about those children. This episode has raised questions in my mind that I am unable to answer just yet. The scars will take a long time to heal. I never thought this could happen to me. It did, and it could happen to you.