'Give us more protection'

12th September 2003 at 01:00
Wife of missing head calls for the law to protect accused teachers. Adi Bloom reports

The wife of the headteacher who disappeared two weeks ago, after being accused of sexual assault against a pupil, is calling for a change in the law which allow-ed his name to be published shortly after the allegation was made.

Alastair Wilbee, 47, head of Summerfields primary, in the Isle of Wight, is thought to have committed suicide.

Mr Wilbee was suspended in May, after being accused of indecently assaulting a pupil during a residential trip. The case reached court in late August. But the day before a report of court proceedings was to be published in his local newspaper, Mr Wilbee disappeared.

Gail Wilbee believes her husband is dead. She said: "Names are published at an early stage, without the opportunity to prove the accusation right or wrong.

"You're ruined as soon as an allegation is made. Alastair knew that this was the end of a 25-year career. It's so instantly devastating. Everything is suddenly taken away."

Mrs Wilbee, herself a teacher, acknowledges the importance of laws to safeguard children, but believes that education professionals also need protection.

"The day the allegations were made, Alastair lost his life's work, his reputation and his future. You're hit with a sledgehammer, when a simple enquiry might be more appropriate.

"The pendulum has swung too far towards the children. There is no protection for those working with them. As a teacher, I am concerned, because I'm also vulnerable."

The situation is compounded, she says, by the length of time between the allegation and the verdict. Mrs Wilbee believes this is detrimental both to the teacher and to the school. Their two teenage children also found it difficult.

"We've had a very traumatic time," said Mrs Wilbee. "The emotional and financial consequences for my family are so extreme. We may never have a body. It's all so unbelievable - it's just too big to cope with. At the moment we're all just trying to survive day to day."

Mrs Wilbee is consulting a solicitor about how to clear her husband's name.

Staff at Summerfields were unwilling to comment on the loss of their colleague. But Gareth Newbury, National Association of Head Teachers officer for southern England, has backed Mrs Wilbee's calls for a change in procedure.

He said: "Parents think that, if a teacher has been named, there must be something in the allegation. There's an understandable angst and anxiety.

"Because a head is often a leading figure in the community, it can be even more devastating. It can make it very difficult to have a fair hearing in court."

Mrs Wilbee insists she will not pander to the tabloids' hunger for a campaigning wife, full of righteous anger.

"Time and facts will prove his innocence," she said. "I don't want this issue to dominate the rest of my life.

"But I do want Alastair to be remembered for the man he was, and for what he achieved. I want this all to go away."

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