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Let sex out of the closet

The media is in a frenzy over recent teacher scandals and schools need to face the music, writes Kate Myers

Stories involving sex andor violence are popular and sell papers. Presumably we get vicarious pleasure from hearing salacious and gory tales, most of us knowing that there is no connection with our own lives. But how do people react when the stories are connected to their own lives - professionally as well as personally?

Last month a school in Surrey had to deal with the daily press coverage of the trial of Amy Gehring, the supply teacher accused of having sex with three pupils at the school - charges of which she was finally cleared. A few weeks ago a West Sussex school had to face the media when one of its teachers was found guilty of the manslaughter of his wife, also a teacher at the school. He had killed her after discovering she had been having an affair with a colleague. Around the same time another school in Hertfordshire was trying to cope with the violent death of one of its staff who had died from stab wounds. Her husband has since been charged with her murder.

These incidents are fortunately rare, but given that most people meet their partners at work, sexual relations between staff - open and illicit - occur within many organisations. The differences between schools and other organisations in this context is that we expect teachers to act as role models for their pupils.

Recently footballers have been criticised for not acting as good role models for young people. Expectations of teachers (and heads) are probably even higher. How should teachers behave? There is likely to be consensus that having sex with pupils, under-age or not, is a betrayal of professional responsibility and should be condemned. But what about issues that are not quite so clear cut - for instance, sexual behaviour among the staff? Does it matter how teachers behave in their own time, say at a private party or a club on a Saturday night?

Fifteen years ago a teacher in Canada was suspended because her husband had sent in a semi-nude photograph of her that was subsequently published in a magazine. She was suspended on the grounds that "teachers are expected to be role models for their students and that this role includes upholding the values of the community outside the classroom as well as in it".

We need to think about what sort of role models we want teachers to be. Would it be the same in secular and religious schools; in maintained and private ones? Do we need rules for behaviour off the premises?

And what about behaviour on the premises? If two members of staff are having a relationship, is it acceptable to be seen kissing in the playground? If that is ok for a heterosexual couple, is it equally ok for gays or lesbians?

Should staff have to declare an interest when issues of promotion or pay are involved? Bath University, for example, has a policy on personal and professional relationships whereby any personal relationship between staff must be declared to a senior manager because of potential conflicts of interest over recruitment, selection, appraisal, and promotion. Would a similar policy be helpful to schools and would people abide by it?

Sex is often connected with power and any organisation needs to have procedures to deal with sexual harassment. How do school leaders ensure these procedures are working and known by the staff? What do staff do if the harasser is the head?

In the main these issues remain beneath the surface and are not deemed appropriate for discussion in polite society. All schools have procedures for dealing with emergencies such as fires and floods. Would it be helpful to adopt procedures for critical incidents? Perhaps we should spend some professional development time considering how as a school we would want to react to these issues. How would we support a gay or lesbian teacher who is "outed"? What would we do if a staff member wanted to change their sex (three such cases have been discussed in The TES over the past year)? We need to consider the consequences for the individuals concerned; the morale and morals of the students, parents, community; as well as the school's reputation. What sort of role models do we want to be and what messages do we want to send out about our school?

Most importantly, how do we deal with the media? Ignoring them does not mean they will disappear.

Kate Myers is visiting professor at Homerton College, Cambridge

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