A very modern witch-hunt

21st April 2006 at 01:00
A jury took just half an hour to find Charlie King not guilty of sexually assaulting three of his pupils. So why did it take 13 months for the case to reach court? And why is the career of a respected professional in tatters? Wendy Wallace reports

What does it take to end a career in teaching? Charlie King taught for 30 years at Dayncourt comprehensive, in Radcliffe on Trent, Nottinghamshire.

On January 27 last year, his life's work came to a halt. Asked, at 8.50am, to "pop down to see the head" he thought nothing of it. What the headteacher told him, though, was far from mundane. A girl from Mr King's Year 10 life skills class had alleged that he had touched her on the bottom, and her family had gone to the police. "It was ridiculous, I had done nothing of the kind," he says. "I was shocked and dismayed. This is every teacher's worst nightmare."

Charlie King was told to leave the premises immediately, and by 9.30am was sitting at his kitchen table. That was almost 15 months ago; he has not set foot in Dayncourt school since.

Mr King, now 52, loved Dayncourt school, an 11-18 specialist sports college with around 1,000 pupils. "It was a good school and had a great staff.

People would work for each other. You felt at home when you got there." A technology teacher from a mining family, he particularly empathised with disaffected kids - some from the nearby former pit community of Cotgrave - and had raised pound;200,000 for an inclusion unit at the school. By the mid-90s, after 10 years as a head of year, he had been promoted to head of upper school. "Even after 30 years," he says, "I still enjoyed teaching."

Mr King did not at first know whom the allegation came from, and was not given any details. But he and his wife Alison decided two things immediately: they would get through it together, and they would be open about it. "I've always believed in putting my cards on the table with everybody," he says. "That is one of the reasons I was well respected." He told people face to face - his elderly mother was the hardest - and Mrs King was straight with her friends, too. A week later, police arrived early in the morning and arrested him. He was kept in a cell - minus belt and shoelaces - while officers searched his home, removing his computer and a digital camera he used to record work in school. He was formally charged with sexual assault because a 14-year-old girl had accused him of touching her on the bottom. "I felt a certain sense of relief," he says. "It sounded utterly ridiculous."

The system then creaked into gear. Charlie King's solicitor said straight away that it sounded like a false allegation. But the police thought otherwise. They were particularly interested in an incident that had taken place seven years earlier, when an allegation had been made against him; the disciplinary panel had dismissed the allegation but issued a written warning because Mr King admitted putting his hands on a student's shoulders. On the basis of this incident, Charlie King was referred to as a "known offender" in one police record.

He was bailed and a month later arrested again and presented with more charges, based on testimony from the girl and two others. "I used to think the role of the police was to get at the truth. I now know that it is to get sufficient evidence to make a prosecution," he says. A second girl from the same lesson had alleged that he had also touched her. And in "trawling"

for further complaints, the police had come up with another Year 10 student who said Mr King had touched her several times, possibly by accident.

When, later in the year, Charlie King saw the evidence against him in the form of transcripts of videos the girls had made, he said it was as if "reality had flown out of the window". The uncertainty and inconsistency of the girls' testimony made it obvious that they were lying. But the police and prosecutors apparently could not see it. "Hysteria about child abuse means that nobody wants to take responsibility for saying 'this is silly',"

says Mr King. "It all becomes a back-covering exercise."

Over the following months, Charlie King received unstinting support from his wife and family - his adult daughter and son have been hurt too, he says, by the injustice of his case - from his union (the NASUWT) and his solicitor, Paula Porter, of the law firm Thompsons. His wife accompanied him to every meeting, taking notes and asking questions. "I would say to anyone who has this misfortune, if you can get someone to act as your advocate, do so," says Mr King. "Having that second person there is really valuable."

He has had almost no support from either the local authority, the headteacher or any of the governors. "It has left me quite bitter," he says, "that the head and governors have had no direct communication with me and up until the letters came about the disciplinary hearing, neither has the local authority. It's as if I've left the planet. It makes you think, 'How much did they value me, as a person, as a teacher, and in what I did for the school?'"

The attitude from his colleagues could not have been more different. "I've had unswerving support from colleagues across the school," says Mr King.

"Even those I barely knew. They've all had the same sense of outrage." The 15-plus people he asked for witness statements came up with testimonies that have kept him going on the darker days. "Reading what they wrote is touching, uplifting, emotional," he says.

The case reached Nottingham crown court on February 28 this year. "You realise you're sitting where you are because three not very bright girls told lies. And that's awful," says Mr King. The hostility of jurors, when they heard that the senior teacher in the dock faced five charges of sexual assault, was palpable, he says. Hostility changed to puzzlement, though, when they began to hear the evidence. The judge dismissed the second girl's allegation and Mr King's barrister "teased out the truth" from the remaining two girls. The jury took half an hour to find him not guilty on the remaining charges. But Mr King's ordeal is not over yet. Statutory procedures require the local authority to conduct an internal disciplinary hearing, based on the same evidence, even though the case has been acquitted in a court of law. Meanwhile Nottinghamshire would not comment on the case save to say that it had been in contact with Mr King "prior to and since the court hearing" and that the next step was "a priority".

Mr King's story conjures a sense of dej... vu. Many teachers have faced malicious allegations; some of their stories have appeared in The TES. The Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, announcing new advice late last year (see box), promised that cases such as Charlie King's - where innocent people have had their lives and reputations destroyed over a protracted period - would become a thing of the past. David Blunkett made similar assurances in 2002.

Paula Porter, who deals regularly with such allegations, has seen no change. While she was particularly surprised at the decision to proceed in Charlie King's case, all teachers are vulnerable, she says. "Mr King's case is significant, because there appeared to be very weak evidence. But I do feel a lot of the charges brought against teachers wouldn't be brought against the ordinary man in the street. The police seem to regard it as an aggravating factor."

Falsely Accused Carers and Teachers (Fact) telephone helpline: 02920 777499 (Mon-Fri 9.30-12.30, 6.30-9 pm and some Saturday mornings) or email secretary@fact.org.uk


Last November the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, announced measures to speed up proceedings in cases of abuse allegations and cut down on damaging publicity.

These included:

* the use of designated officers in the police and local authorities to sift cases at the outset and manage them to cut out delay;

* agreement by the police and Crown Prosecution Service to liaise and review progress of criminal investigations to ensure they are concluded as quickly as possible;

* advice to police and social services about getting consent to share information;

* indicative timescales for stages of the disciplinary process.

The guidance also covers the need to provide support for children who may have been abused, and for staff who have been accused, while allegations are investigated. It emphasises the need for confidentiality while cases are being processed, and for automatic suspension of staff to be avoided.

Whether the advice will be effective remains to be seen. The NASUWT's campaign on the subject was credited by Ruth Kelly with partly shaping the content of the new advice. Chris Keates, general secretary of the union, says the advice is good and if the situation does not improve it will be because those charged with implementing it have not done so.

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