Erring on the side of caution

28th June 1996 at 01:00
The DFEE wouldn't act on a pupil's allegations against a student teacherI Three months ago one of our students on teaching practice arranged to visit a 15-year-old pupil at her home on a Sunday afternoon. He hadn't checked this with us or the school and he didn't know whether or not her parents would be at home.

He claimed that on the previous Friday evening the girl had accosted him in the city centre and that she had been extremely drunk. He also alleged that the girl, in the company of others, had followed him around the school to give him a note asking him out for a drink.

If these allegations were true they made his visit to the girl's home all the more sinister, but he claimed the visit was to help with her homework. Nor was the student a youngster fresh from school who had misunderstood his role, but a mature student of 35 - old enough to be the girl's father.

He acknowleged all the events described above which would have been enough for us to require him to leave the course had he not disappeared before facing a formal disciplinary hearing. We told the DFEE so that he could be barred permanently but were amazed to be told that no action was to be taken as the Secretary of State must have "substantiated evidence of misconduct". So, our ex-student is free to enrol elsewhere and, with more prudence in his behaviour while training, he will be free to qualify as a teacher and resume his improper intentions.

The DFEE is too cautious about what counts as substantiated evidence. The student did not deny the facts - he just avoided having them formalised by not turning up to the hearing. Nor was that all we had before us.

The school had already investigated other matters and found them to be proved: three girls had complained independently of suggestive remarks and looks; one said he had brushed against her and touched her; another had been invited to meet him after school and received pestering phone calls at home promising to take her away for a weekend. At first the girls had been amused, then shocked, and had tried to put him off by saying the staff would hear about him. They said his response had been that he had always liked young girls and it was no business of anyone else.

He became hostile and aggressive when we interviewed him and, while claiming the girls were lying, told us that it was his business and not that of anyone else. You'd expect someone wrongly accused of such behaviour to be baffled and to search his memory for any clue for the allegations. Our student had no such explanation. He could not say why he had visited a girl he evidently believed to be a delinquent, nor could he account for her knowing details of his personal life - which she said he had told her on the phone - if he had not called her. He just coolly stated that his conscience was clear - as of course it might well have been.

We were confident that the school had diligently investigated the matter and that the pupils - described by the head as "some of our best girls" - were reliable witnesses. We concluded that our student did not understand or accept the professional standards required of a teacher, and were concerned that he might not accept the legal prohibition on sexual relationships with girls under 16.

The evidence was good enough for us and for our partner school, but not for the DFEE. It is time for a change. A minimum requirement must surely be that the properly constituted disciplinary proceedings of a school or university must remain on file. The Secretary of State might need more substantiated evidence but it is doubtful that schools would. Let them decide.

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