Character assassination

29th May 2009 at 01:00
When a pupil makes an allegation against a teacher it can stay on their record for life, even if they are exonerated. The ordeal leaves some feeling unable to return to the classroom. Nick Morrison hears first-hand how the system is failing teachers

Hazel isn't looking forward to grandchildren. That may come as a surprise to many of her friends: if there's one thing they thought they knew about her, it was that she loved children. Now the 53-year-old feels uncomfortable around them and is nervously awaiting the day when one of her three sons tells her one is on the way.

"I don't even like children any more, and that really upsets me," she says. "I'm dreading the time I'm going to be a granny. It has been the worst thing about what has happened. It has broken my heart."

Children have played a big part in Hazel's life. She spent 30 years as a teacher, and when she retired she planned to volunteer in a children's hospice and put herself forward as an emergency foster carer. But her retirement came earlier than she anticipated, and those dreams are now in ruins.

Her career - and her love of children - was brought to a juddering halt when she was accused of hitting a pupil. It was six months before she was exonerated, but by then her confidence had gone and she was unable to return to the classroom.

She is far from alone. Every year, hundreds of teachers are accused of assaulting pupils and suspended from their jobs. In the vast majority of cases, the teacher is cleared and allowed to return to work, but many are left feeling bitter about the way they have been treated.

As well as anger over the original allegation, some teachers feel they are left in limbo while the investigation is carried out, not knowing if they will be believed, particularly when it is a case of their word against a child's. Even when they are cleared, the cloud of suspicion can linger. It's no surprise that some choose not to return to the school, but changing jobs becomes less straightforward: allegations of assaulting children can still show up on a criminal records check, even if unfounded.

Hazel's ordeal began on the last day of the spring term two years ago. She was a teacher in a special school in Belfast, with 30 years' experience of working with children with behavioural problems. When she arrived for work that Friday, she was asked to see the principal, but she was unprepared for what she was about to hear.

The principal told her she had been accused of slapping a seven-year-old boy on the wrist the previous day. She knew the boy, a looked-after child who was exceptionally difficult, but on the day in question he had, unusually, been relatively well-behaved. As the boy was in care, social services had been immediately informed, and they in turn had told the police. Hazel was told to go home and wait for the police to get in touch.

"I was in a state of shock. I thought it was a joke," she says. She assumed she would be suspended, but the principal said he would find her something else to do the following term, so she didn't come into contact with the boy. In tears, she rang her union representative, who told her not to talk to anyone, and that the union would provide a solicitor for her police interview. She was still in shock when her husband arrived to take her home.

"It only hit me in the middle of the night and it went downhill from there," she says. She is aware that the effect the allegations had on her life will be difficult to understand for anyone who has not gone through it themselves. "I don't know if you can appreciate how hard it hit me. I loved those children and I loved that job.

"I had been brought up to have total respect for the police and I found it almost impossible to comprehend that they were going to interview me."

Hazel became terrified of a knock on the door in case it was the police. She started to feel anxious and reluctant to leave the house in case she ran into anyone she knew and they asked how she was. She went to her GP and was signed off sick.

Her principal occasionally rang to offer support, but couldn't make her feel better. "He would ask how I was and I'd say `Dreadful'. He couldn't cope with it. He wanted me to say, `Do you know what, I'm feeling a bit better'."

After an agonising two-month wait, she was finally told to report at the police station the following day to give a statement. She asked her union for the promised legal representative; she was told it was too short notice. Unwilling to put off the interview again, she went ahead anyway and asked her husband to accompany her.

She spent about two hours giving her statement, in a windowless room where the chairs and tables were bolted to the floor. Her legs were shaking so much that at one point her husband had to hold her knees down to stop her feet banging against the floor.

The sergeant told her the boy said the assault had happened during an art lesson but had been unable to give any other details. Hazel also discovered that the two other adults in the room at the time, another teacher and a classroom assistant, had not been spoken to before the police were called in. The police officer told her it would be up to the prosecutor to decide if there was a case to answer, but the allegation would come up on a criminal record check whatever the outcome.

"That really upset me. Who wants their name on a criminal record check?" she says. "I adored children and I'd hoped if I could retire early I could maybe volunteer a wee bit in a children's hospice and maybe do some emergency fostering.

"I knew then that was not going to happen. Would you employ me to look after children if you did a check and my name came up? I don't think so. That is something I could never come to terms with."

It was to be another five months before a letter arrived, addressed to "Dear Sir or Madam," saying no further action would be taken. In the meantime, Hazel twice tried to return to school, partly prompted by the fear of going on to half pay. Each time she found the strain of having the allegation hanging over her too much to bear.

"That was a very difficult time for me, the realisation that I couldn't do it was overwhelming," she says. "I had been doing it for 30 years and suddenly I thought `I can't do it any more'. Mentally, my health was going downhill. I had no confidence and socially I couldn't cope."

Her trips out of the house became less and less frequent. She was on anti- depressants and says she contemplated suicide. To this day she has been too ashamed to tell her mother about the allegation; keeping it secret added to the strain.

Eventually she accepted she would never be able to go back to work and agreed to retire early on ill-health grounds. That was in February last year. She says she has never felt angry towards her accuser, but does feel let down by a system that left her feeling powerless and without any rights.

"I was annoyed and I wondered why he did this to me, but it was the system that I felt let me down," she says.

"I had invested 30 years in that job to be the person who was there for those children and it was an almighty kick in the teeth.

"I'll never work again and I'm a different person now - it's changed me. I'm socially inept and I've become obsessive - I'm obsessed with writing lists and saluting magpies. I'm never going to get over it."

An inability to return to the classroom is a far from uncommon reaction among teachers who have been falsely accused of hitting pupils, according to Hannah Essex, of the Teacher Support Network. She says a significant proportion of calls to the helpline are from teachers coping with the emotional fall-out of a false allegation.

"It is a stressful process and even when they're completely exonerated people often feel they don't want to go back into teaching," she says. The longer a case drags on, the harder it can be to return, she adds.

As well as the damage to a teacher's self-confidence, there is also the public nature of the allegations. However hard schools try to conceal the reason for a teacher's absence, in such an environment the truth is almost bound to creep out. If it leaks into the wider community, there could also be the local newspaper headlines to contend with.

It is also easy to feel that pupils will see it as a weakness to exploit, parents' suspicions will linger and colleagues will want to avoid the taint of association. The alleged offence, of physical or sexual assault on children, lends a distinctive stigma.

"There is also a fear factor. If you have been accused when you haven't done anything wrong, what is to say it won't happen again?" says Ms Essex. "It chips away at people's resilience and unless they get good support they can become very withdrawn."

At its annual conference last year, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) called for a blacklist of pupils who made false accusations, with a view to prosecuting children for perverting the course of justice. Although the power to pursue those who make malicious allegations already exists, it is very rarely used in practice.

While most allegations involve incidents where physical contact did take place, those where there was no contact at all can be more difficult to defend against, according to Kehinde Adeogun, solicitor for the ATL. It makes it harder to find witnesses it there was nothing to witness, and outright denial often raises suspicions, not always working in a teacher's favour. Lack of witnesses also means inquiries can take longer, adding to the stress of being under investigation.

"It is much easier to challenge if there is an incident but when you don't know what you're defending yourself against it can be very difficult," Ms Adeogun says.

Government guidance is that every allegation should remain on an individual's record, even when it is found to be false, a legacy of the Bichard Report in 2004 into the Soham murders two years previously. Ian Huntley, the school caretaker who killed Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman at Soham, had previously been accused of sexual offences but none of the allegations led to a court case and none showed up on a criminal records check.

"It is practically impossible now to wipe clean the fact an allegation has been made," says Ms Adeogun. "The best you can hope for is an accompanying statement saying it was proved to be false."

She says one of the biggest concerns is the length of time investigations can take, particularly when a teacher is suspended. The Department for Children, Schools and Families issued guidance on swifter handling of allegations in 2005, but Barry Sheerman, chairman of the House of Commons select committee on schools, says government announcements don't always trickle down to school level.

The committee announced last month that it was to look into the issue of allegations against teachers, including questions of anonymity, what records should be kept and whether teachers under investigation should automatically be suspended. Mr Sheerman says immediate suspension can imply guilt and give pupils the impression a teacher is being punished.

B ut suspension can be in the teacher's best interests, argues Rosanne Musgrave, member support director for the National Association of Head Teachers. She says teachers can be suspended for three reasons: when there is a possibility of gross misconduct for which they could be sacked, if there is a risk to person or property, or to allow an unimpeded investigation. A suspension can help speed along an inquiry.

"Suspension is neutral, although it doesn't feel like it for the person concerned," she says. "It doesn't say, `We think you're guilty,' it says we need to find out more. It means the investigation can be carried out quickly and with the minimum of pain, which is obviously what everybody wants."

She says heads are mindful of the need to carry out their inquiries as quickly as possible, but the complexity of some investigations means it would be unrealistic to set deadlines. She adds that heads are concerned about false allegations showing up on a criminal record check, but in the wake of Soham it is important to spot where patterns are emerging, even in the absence of convictions.

"It is a downside, and a serious downside, that for professional teachers once an allegation has been made police forces will keep that information on record. We see the point of that for protecting children, but it is a heavy thing to bear," she says.

Anna is haunted by the knowledge that a false allegation will forever dog her career. With 15 years' experience behind her, she was teaching supply in a primary school in north London just before Christmas when her agency rang to say a child had made an accusation against her and she was suspended.

Her first thought was that it concerned a boy with special needs: she had hugged him when he grasped a maths concept he had struggled with all morning. But after an anxious weekend, she was told the accusation was she had punched and squeezed a child's bottom and poked a pupil on the forehead.

"I had no concept of how a child could arrive at those sorts of allegations," she says. "I was absolutely distraught. I couldn't function on a daily basis and I crumbled emotionally."

She was told to wait for the police to contact her, and two weeks later was called to give a statement. As a supply teacher, she was unpaid during her suspension. She had contacted her union, but, finding them unhelpful, she arranged her own legal representative to accompany her.

During the hour-and-a-half interview, she discovered her accuser was not the boy she had assumed it was. Instead it was three girls in the Year 3 class. The allegations also changed: now she was accused of kissing one girl on the lips, and rather than squeezing, now she was said to have tapped a girl on the bottom.

Fortified by the knowledge that there had been no incident involving the girls that day, Anna, 38, was convinced she had no case to answer. At the end of the interview, the police agreed and said the case was closed, but it was likely the accusation would remain on her record.

A week later, the supply agency rang and offered her a long-term post. She decided to terminate her employment with the agency. "I felt they had left me in the dark and I'd been let down by the education system," she says. "I felt I'd been accused of being a child molester. At the police station they asked if I was sexually attracted to young children. I just cried."

She contacted her local authority, who told her she would receive a report on the case as soon as possible. She rang them again when this hadn't arrived after 12 weeks. A letter turned up two days later, although it got the name of the school wrong.

She has not returned to teaching since she was suspended, and has also turned down the offer of a job from the headteacher of her previous school. Although she has been looking for another role since completing an MA in early years education, her experience has made her reluctant to return to teaching. "I love the classroom and to some extent I suppose this has driven me out," she says.

She believes that the head acted inappropriately by immediately involving social services without giving her a chance to defend herself, and that the only support she received was from the police, in deciding to close the case there and then.

"As a professional I have changed an awful lot. I run a playgroup but I've become very detached towards the children," she says. "I understand that there are people who abuse children but at least give the individual some dignity and respect before these accusations are proven."

*Some of the names in this article have been changed.

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