Talking shop

Sue Mulvaney

Former headteacher Sue Mulvaney gets to the heart of the issues that concern you

I have started teaching at a primary school where the acting head is highly regarded in the community. He is very supportive and helpful, and often puts his arm around the shoulders of colleagues - both men and women. No one seemed bothered by it and so, when he did it to me, I didn't make anything of it. Recently, however, I was alone in my class when he came and put his arm around me while he was praising my work. As he got up to leave, he put his hand on my leg, which I ignored, but I felt very embarrassed. I am spending a lot of time thinking about whether his actions were deliberate, what his intentions were, and whether I could have accidentally encouraged him. I feel I can't tell my husband or my friends. What should I do if it happens again?

A It is unacceptable for anyone to feel threatened at work - and you are being made to feel sexually threatened. Whether the perpetrator intends harm or not is secondary.

Social touching takes many forms and it would be unhealthy if we were afraid of ever having physical contact with each other. Shoulder and arm touching is usually acceptable, which is why most people in the school seem at ease with the acting headteacher doing this. Touching your leg is unacceptable, however, and he seems unaware of transgressing any boundaries and the distress it causes. He is not in touch with his power as a man and an authority-figure.

While this is a highly personal situation, many will recognise the elements: you didn't start it; you begin to think it must be your fault; you feel you can't talk about it, and you spend time thinking about that rather than your work. If nothing is done, work suffers and self-esteem diminishes. In extreme cases the victim can be blamed for under-performance. You must take action to prevent things getting worse.

You need to tell him that his actions make you feel uncomfortable and ask him not to touch you like that again. If you would prefer not being touched at all, you must say so. Say that you want to get on with your job and don't want to refer to the incident again, and make it clear that if it happens again you will report the incident to the governors. You need to be strong and I wish you well.

Q In April 2000, 75 of us started a part-time Postgraduate Certificate in Education course. We believed we would be eligible for the pound;6,000 teacher-training salary from March 30. But it seems that only ful-time students are receiving the payment. We feel we are being treated unfairly and many students have left the course. Apart from writing to our MPs and the Secretary of State for Education, is there anything we can do?

A It always saddens me to hear of teachers being lost to the profession, especially given the recruitment crisis. I hate to say this, but it's a shame you didn't wait until September before starting your PGCEs. If you had, then this sorry situation might have been avoided.

All PGCE trainees in England now receive a pound;6,000 training salary. Those on part-time postgraduate courses will still get the same cash, but spread over the length of the course. Secondary specialists in shortage subjects will receive an extra pound;4,000 when they begin their second year in a state school - secondary or primary - if they are responsible for teaching one or more of these subjects to classes or groups other than their own.

At the moment it has not been decided whether the training salary will be given to primary trainees after this year, and Bachelor of Education students don't qualify for the payment at all.

I'm afraid that the only pressure you can apply will be via your MPs and what joy you have may depend on you how effectively you can persuade them your cause is just. You could look at other sources of student support. As a PGCE student, your tuition fees are waived and you can apply for a student loan. All Initial Teacher Training students with dependants can apply to the Access Bursary Fund for up to pound;1,000. This is needs-assessed and non-repayable, but will be replaced in 2001-2002 by the Childcare Grant. Also available are the hardship fund and loan and, if you are eligible, a disabled student allowance.

The Teaching Information Line, on 01245 454 454, the Teacher Training Agency (TTA) website ( or a union will give you more information.

Q I have taught at the same school for years and have always parked my car in the designated area. Since the new head came, however, there have been staff changes and more people arriving by car. I often can't find a parking space and this is upsetting my schedule. This may seem like a small problem, but it is very disconcerting.

AIt is a little problem. Times change and so must we. You could arrive earlier, use public transport, park on the road or ask if you can have special treatment by having a reserved space. I can imagine the reaction to that last one, can't you?

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Sue Mulvaney

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