Off duty but not off limits

13th February 2009 at 00:00
You're good at your job, but your after-hours activities have raised a few eyebrows. Does it really matter what you do outside school, you're the perfect role model when you are in the classroom. But does it really matter what you do when you leave the school gates?

Ralph Morse knows what it's like to be at the centre of a furore about his private life. The musician and actor - he counts appearances as a storm trooper in two Star Wars films among his credits - was suspended from his job as a drama teacher at an Essex secondary school after a newspaper article highlighted his role as the first national youth manager for the Pagan Federation.

The headteacher was quoted at the time as saying he was "appalled" the school was associated with paganism, adding: "There is no doubt this man's private interests are impinging on the school." Mr Morse was subsequently reinstated, although he has since left teaching.

Mr Morse knows that teachers are expected to be role models, but says the expectation of a certain standard of behaviour should apply only to what they do in school. "A teacher's suitability for the classroom should be judged on how they conduct themselves within their professional role," he says.

"Legitimate activities that do not interfere with their teaching role are not the business of the school. Unless a teacher's private life is shown to directly affect their ability to teach, it should be of no interest to anyone else."

But not everyone has the same view of where the boundary between private life and public duty should be. For every teacher who thinks it's "anything goes as long as it's legal", or that breaking the law is none of the school's business provided there are no children involved, there is one who believes that teachers should follow higher standards of behaviour and must accept this will curtail their private life.

It is a debate that surfaces at school level every time a teacher's out- of-school activities come to the attention of school leaders. At the end of this month, it will come into focus at a national level when a consultation on the General Teaching Council for England's revised code of conduct comes to a close. The GTC, which aspires to "raise the standing of the profession", published its draft version at the end of last year, and a breach of the code could see a teacher lose their licence to teach.

The provision in the code that has attracted most controversy is a stipulation that teachers should: "uphold the law and maintain standards of behaviour both inside and outside school that are appropriate given their membership of an important and responsible profession".

Critics claim that it effectively requires teachers to be on duty 24 hours a day. A petition on the Number 10 website, urging the Prime Minister to remove the reference to outside school from the code, had garnered more than 500 signatures at the time of going to press.

In its official response to the code, the NUT sets its face firmly against bringing out-of-school activities under the GTC's remit and thus within the range of disciplinary action. Such a move is beyond the council's powers, according to the union, and "a wholly unacceptable interference in every registered teacher's private life".

John Bangs, the union's head of education, says while the code is acceptable as an aspirational document, it is unreasonable to turn these aspirations into the basis for possibly ending someone's career. He says it raises the prospect that teachers will be punished twice if they break the law - once by the courts and once by the teaching council.

"This has raised real fears among teachers," he says. "Serious criminal misconduct has obviously got to be the business of the GTC, but there is a whole set of other areas that should have absolutely nothing to do with them or with employers."

He says the council's interference is only reasonable when outside activity affects a teacher's relationship with school and pupils. But it is far from clear-cut when this is the case. A conviction for possessing child pornography is one thing, but falling out of a pub in front of the parents of your Year 8s is less black and white. This could have an impact on your relationship with the class, but not everyone would say it was enough to warrant disciplinary action.

How the various regulatory bodies view this link between outside behaviour and standing in the school lies at the heart of this controversy. For the GTC, anything that undermines the ability of a teacher to be a role model, wherever it occurs, affects their relationship with pupils, and is therefore a legitimate area of concern. Keith Bartley, chief executive of the council, recognises this can put a greater burden on teachers than on people in other professions.

"If somebody is responsible for the protection, wellbeing and education of children, it could be there is a different standard of expectation on them than on the ordinary citizen," he says.

The GTC's disciplinary committee heard 150 cases in 2007-08, involving 222 instances of alleged misconduct. Of this 222, behaviour outside the workplace was an issue in 55. These fall into two categories: where the teacher has been convicted of a criminal offence, and where no law has been broken. One teacher told The TES he had been summoned before the council after his second drink-driving conviction. Despite already being punished once by the courts, he was given a reprimand and told to go on a drink-driving awareness course, even though the magistrates had not thought this necessary.

Mr Bartley defends this system of double punishment. He says the issue is whether the conviction would affect a teacher's ability to practise, taking into account the circumstances and seriousness of the offence. "Just because it has been dealt with by the courts, there is no direct link as to whether that does or doesn't mean there is an impact on their teaching," he says.

There is no ranking to determine which offences will result in a disciplinary hearing. Drink-driving, the most common conviction among teachers accused of misconduct, is only likely to merit further punishment if it is a repeat offence. A teacher convicted of assault can expect to be treated differently, depending on whether the victim was a stranger in a bar in Spain or a parent outside the school gates.

The GTC, and its equivalent bodies in Scotland and Wales, also consider mitigating circumstances. Jeremy Cassidy, a secondary teacher in Beverley, East Yorkshire, was given a reprimand in December but allowed to return to the classroom after he was convicted of assaulting a police officer. Immediately informing his school about the assault and his regret went in his favour.

Emma Jones was given a 12-month registration order, where she has to prove to employers every three months that she is drug free, after she was cautioned by police for possessing heroin. The drug had been found in her car parked outside the gates of the school in Gwynedd, northwest Wales. At its hearing in October, the GTC for Wales was told she was no longer using drugs.

And in November, a head who had received a conviction for indecency was given a reprimand by the disciplinary committee thanks to the fact he had turned around a Birmingham secondary school that had been given a notice to improve.

Not all of the cases coming before disciplinary hearings involve breaking the law, which blurs the line further. Andrew Beasley, a primary school teacher in Essex, was reprimanded last month for appearing in films of a sexual nature. In another case, Adam Walker has been charged with unacceptable professional conduct over allegations he posted racist comments using a laptop owned by his Wearside school. Although the charge relates to activity in school, the teacher claims he has been victimised because of his involvement with the BNP, including standing for the party in local elections. The case will come before the GTC this week.

Nor does every instance of a teacher's private life jeopardising their career come before the GTC. Some see the teacher leave their job without recourse to a disciplinary hearing. Louise Crolla was told not to return to the Oldham school where she was working on supply after she appeared topless in a newspaper two years ago. Samantha Goldstone left her post as English and drama teacher in Accrington, also in Lancashire, "by mutual agreement", after parents complained about the erotic vampire fiction on her website.

B ut why are teachers held up as the ultimate role models? Opponents of the code of practice point to footballers, who probably have a greater influence on children, but whose behaviour does not always set a good example. There was only muted dissent when Joey Barton was allowed to return to the Newcastle United midfield after serving a six-month sentence for assault. Steven Gerrard has been told his captaincy of Liverpool and place in the England team are not in doubt while he awaits trial over an alleged assault outside a nightclub. In either case, these misdemeanours (suspected or otherwise) are unlikely to spell an end to their careers.

John Anderson, head of professional practice at the GTC for Scotland, recognises that teachers are just one among many influences, but says their involvement when children are at an impressionable stage in their lives is significant. "We're not saying that teachers should be nuns and monks," he says. "We're all human, but if we're giving off a message let's make it a reasonably good one."

He says most cases that come before their disciplinary body have either been through the courts, where the test is whether they are relevant to teaching, or involve a teacher who has been dismissed for misconduct. "There are grey areas, and it is a question of where you draw the line."

The GTC for Scotland's code of conduct, published in May last year, says teachers should be aware they are role models, and should "avoid situations both within and without the classroom that could be in breach of the criminal law, or may call into question your suitability to be a teacher".

John Anderson recognises that this puts an extra burden on teachers. "Of course a teacher is entitled to a private life, however there are instances when maybe that private life begins to overlap with their professional life."

Teachers share this burden with other professions where integrity is a key part of the practitioner's ability to build relationships. The General Medical Council, the regulatory body for doctors, says in its core guidance that "you must make sure that your conduct at all times justifies your patients' trust in you and the public's trust in the profession". A GMC spokesman says any action a doctor takes that is contrary to this guidance could be subject to investigation, whether it happens in the workplace or not.

Mal Davies, chair of the GTC for Wales, suggests that the status of the profession is such that teachers' behaviour is always under scrutiny. "Teachers have a terrific impact on the development of young people," he says. "We should, at all times, act in a professional and appropriate manner." The GTC for Wales provides guidance for teachers, but has not drawn up a code of conduct, although a draft code is expected to be published this year.

Mr Bartley, of the GTC for England, says most cases are referred to them either by the police, who have a duty to pass on details of relevant convictions, or by employers, when a teacher has been dismissed for misconduct or has resigned when they might otherwise have been charged with misconduct. But complaints about individual teachers from the public have gone up dramatically, tripling in five years and now making up one in six of all referrals.

Margaret Morrisey, of the lobby group Parents Out Loud, says they are right to worry if their child's teacher is rolling around drunk outside the pub every Saturday night. "If you put yourself up as a role model to youngsters, then you have a duty to them and their parents to set a good example," she says. "If you don't accept that, then probably the best thing is find a different profession."

But Mick Brookes, general secretary of the NAHT, the headteachers' union, fears the inclusion of the out-of-school activity proviso in the code could end up damaging the profession. "If you insist that teachers are quasi-saints, then you will put people off coming into the profession, unless they're quasi-saints," he says.

Mr Brookes recognises that teachers are role models, and this does put additional expectations on them, but he believes there are dangers in trying to be paragons of virtue.

"I don't think the role model of being a saint is helpful. It doesn't reflect the realities of the lives of children and young people," he says. "We work in the real world and the real world is where people have a right to go out and enjoy themselves."

Mr Brookes says that a second punishment for a criminal offence other than one imposed by the courts is over the top. Paul Davies was allowed to return to work last year when the High Court quashed a prohibition order imposed by the GTC for Wales. The headteacher of a south Wales primary had been jailed for 15 months for dangerous driving after a crash that left the other driver in a wheelchair. "He was an excellent head and why should he be punished twice? If they're doing a good job, they should be allowed to return to their livelihood," Mr Brookes suggests. "Provided it doesn't affect your ability to do your job and the smooth running of the school, it is part of your private life and it isn't the business of the school management or anybody else."

This at least seems to be common ground: it's only a problem when it's relevant to teaching. Few people realistically advocate a complete separation of private life and school. Even the most laissez faire recognise that offences involving children should be potentially career- threatening. But there is no consensus over where to draw the line. We all have our own standards. For every one who thinks appearing in adult films is an inalienable right, there is another who believes it undermines a teacher's authority. So where do you stand?

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