Have you got a secret to hide?

15th January 2010 at 00:00
Hannah Frankel analyses why in teaching, skeletons have a habit of emerging from the closet

Original magazine headline: A virtuous profession

When an ex-boyfriend and a national newspaper threatened to "out" prostitute-turned-academic Belle de Jour, she did what she thought to be the honourable thing: she came clean.

Brooke Magnanti emerged from the shadows of her infamous blog and alter ego in November, not as a full-time, high-class hooker but as a respected researcher at the Bristol Initiative for Research of Child Health.

Her colleagues and employers at the hospital have been supportive of her "other" career, which saw her charge pound;300 an hour as a prostitute for a London escort agency.

So if a developmental neurotoxicologist and cancer epidemiologist with a PhD in informatics, epidemiology and forensic science was once a hooker, is it beyond the realms of possibility that teachers could also have such career-threatening skeletons in their closet?

For those who do, it doesn't help that teaching is generally perceived to be a virtuous profession. According to a survey last September by the Royal College of Physicians, teachers are the second most trusted profession after doctors, with 88 per cent of respondents confident that they generally tell the truth.

But not all teachers live up to this clean-living image. Many recall university days when they used to smoke or sell cannabis, urinate in the street or become involved in the occasional drunken fracas. Some will have received a police caution for their actions, only to discover later, when they apply for a job, that a long-forgotten, one-off incident could have permanently damaged their career chances.

Susan Murray (not her real name), a PGCE student, paid for one dress at a shop but forgot to pay for a second. "The security guard caught me, they called the police and I was given a police caution," she says. "I feel so bad. I can't sleep and can't eat. I'm terrified this police caution is going to prevent me from getting a job."

Never have checks on teachers been more stringent. For those working with children or vulnerable adults, even cautions are never forgotten. Teachers and trainees are subject to enhanced Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks, which will show up current and spent convictions, cautions, reprimands and warnings, plus any other information held by the police.

And since October, any offences involving a risk of harm to children or vulnerable adults will be considered by the Independent Safeguarding Authority. All other convictions and cautions will be passed to the General Teaching Council for England (GTC), which will decide whether they are relevant to a teacher's registration.

"For those who want to work with children or vulnerable adults, the price can be high in relation to the actual offence," says John Howson, recruitment analyst and director of Education Data Surveys.

He believes that with the current shortage of full-time job vacancies, Ms Murray may well struggle to find a post. "It may be worth withdrawing from the course and seeking other employment where a caution does not need to be disclosed," he advises.

Even if you have a job, there is always a chance your past could catch up with you. As well as the embarrassment and potential for staffroom gossip, it can have a drastic impact on your career.

"When CRB checks first started a few years ago (2002), we put existing staff through the system," says "Theogriff", a retired head of an independent school and a resident adviser on the TES Connect web forum. "I had a big bloke in his 50s in tears in my office because of a cannabis incident 35 years previously."

Theogriff did not sack the man, although as he had not declared the offence on appointment 20 years earlier, he could have done. "Failure to disclose is a motive for instant dismissal in most teaching contracts," he adds.

But this creates a dilemma. After all, stating those misdemeanours is likely to greatly reduce an applicant's chances of getting their foot in the door.

Catherine Stephens, from the International Union of Sex Workers, knows of a number of teachers and support staff who used to work as prostitutes. But she has never heard of anyone revealing in an interview that they used to work in the sex trade. If they did, she doubts that they would have got the job.

Some even continue their "second job" on the side. Claire Norman, a geography teacher from Nottingham, hit the headlines in 2000, when it was discovered that she was earning pound;2,000 a week as a prostitute to pay off her student debts. She resigned but Nottingham Council still went on to ban her from working in the area.

Any brush with the law will mean a prospective teacher may not be allowed to work with children. Unfortunately for prostitutes, whatever their motives for pursuing that line of work, breaking the law is an occupational hazard. "Not every prostitute will have a conviction, but most who've worked on the streets will," says Carrie Mitchell from the English Collective of Prostitutes, which campaigns for the safety of sex workers. "It is becoming more common among those who work indoors, too. The police are doing more raids, using trafficking as an excuse."

L ike Dr Magnanti, most will have turned to prostitution because they are time and money short. "I started to think, `What can I do that I can start doing straight away, that doesn't require a great deal of training or investment to get started, that's cash in hand and that leaves me spare time to do my work in?'" she told The Sunday Times.

Ms Stephens says sex work is often well suited to degree-educated women, especially if they need to earn good money in a flexible way. "A lot of people will be working in the sex trade to fund their studies or to supplement their wages. Some will just do it so that they can get a deposit on a flat and then stop."

But put yourself in the headteacher's shoes. If newspapers get hold of a story from a teacher's past, it can bring the school and the profession into disrepute. In 2008, Helen Serghi, a teaching assistant at a school in Staffordshire, was splashed across the pages of The Sun after pupils found dozens of "saucy" pictures of her on the internet. She faced the axe even though she insisted the pictures had been taken 10 years earlier. She ended up resigning, despite the school saying she could stay on.

And last October, a PE teacher from Kent was suspended after naked pictures of him appeared on a gay porn website. Sam Handley, 25, also protested that the pictures were taken before he became a teacher and were never meant to end up in the public domain.

Although the school "fully accepts" that the pictures were taken before he went to work there, and that he had not "engaged in anything similar while employed at the school", it accepted his resignation before an investigation into his conduct began.

Headteachers will also expect candidates to explain any gaps in their CV. "Most women (escorts) have to be very careful," Ms Mitchell says. "If they have their own website, they'll not show their face, but many agencies will insist that they show their faces. They may use a different name, wear a wig or say they are from a different country, but there is a danger that they will be found by an employer Googling their name or details."

One anonymous teacher has been caught out in this way. She had her teaching appointment cancelled by a school after criminal - but false - allegations about her were found by her would-be employer on the internet.

"If this is part of safer recruitment procedures," she says, "am I in the ridiculous situation of being unemployable as a teacher in the UK until I spend thousands of pounds to get this rubbish removed from the internet?"

Employers will have their own questions to put to prospective employees - including asking for job history and references, says Fiona Armstrong from the GTC.

"If a teacher's previous `behaviours' become public, then it would be a matter for the individual teacher and school, depending upon the seriousness of what they've done," she explains.

"We have considered cases where teachers have been struck off by other regulators although there has been no criminal conviction. Headteachers may ask additional questions of applicants in interviews and on application forms, but generally they rely on the various necessary checks and references - from training providers for newly qualified teachers to previous employers."

Provided behaviour is legal and private, it is a matter for the individuals, Ms Armstrong insists. However, the GTC will assess any behaviour that may damage a teacher's professional ability because it has become public.

The council has heard two cases that relate to teachers' lawful but "unacceptable" conduct outside of school. The first involved a teacher who promoted unprotected gay sex on a TV programme in July 2007.

Clive Wheeler, who at the time worked at Denbigh High in Luton, told the Channel 4 documentary Queer as Old Folk that he lied to a partner about having a sexually transmitted infection because it could spoil sex. The GTC strongly criticised him for a "cavalier approach to serious issues".

Andrew Beasley, a teacher at Ripple Junior School in Barking, Essex, was allowed to return to the classroom after he admitted performing in "television programmes and films of a sexual nature" over a 15-month period. In both cases, the teachers received a reprimand.

In accordance with the GTC's principle that teachers should "uphold public trust and confidence in the teaching profession", the council has also taken disciplinary action against people who have been convicted of benefit fraud or being in possession of illegal drugs.

But do these convictions really impinge on their potential to be a good teacher? "If the activity is not relevant to the work they're doing, employees shouldn't be hounded from their job," insists Ms Stephens. "It's common sense, but common sense is not always that common."

Ms Stephens compares the persecution of former prostitutes in their new jobs as similar to discrimination against gay and lesbian workers in the not so distant past.

Women who work in associated fields, such as lap-dancing or stripping will also face problems. If it ever comes out that they have worked in "disreputable" trades, most of those who work as teachers or support staff will lose their jobs, adds Ms Mitchell.

But despite the numerous checks teachers now have to endure, Theogriff believes that many new teachers remain blissfully unaware that past misdemeanours could affect their future career chances.

"Teacher-training students need to be rather more aware than other students of the need not to do anything that could come back to haunt them," he says.

Some will get lucky. "I had a caution for being drunk and disorderly when I was an undergraduate," says one anonymous teacher on a TES forum. "I had no problems getting a job after my PGCE. I mentioned it to my employer after I was offered the job."

But others will suffer for their crimes. "A local teacher has been in our evening paper for having had a drink-driving conviction a couple of years ago that he didn't inform the school about," another teacher says. The GTC ruled that he could still teach, but a reprimand will remain on the register for two years.

Those who keep quiet but are subsequently "outed" will often be dealt a heavier penalty. Dr Magnanti managed to keep her current job following her very public disclosure. But had she turned to teaching, as opposed to academia, it might have been a very different story

What you must disclose

  • Teacher trainees: Teaching is exempt from the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, so trainees must disclose details of convictions or cautions in connection with an application for training, no matter how irrelevant or how long ago it took place. The training provider will decide whether the trainee will be accepted, suspended, excluded or allowed to continue. The provider may decide to terminate training if information is withheld.
  • NQTs or teachers moving jobs: Information about convictions or cautions must be disclosed with any application. The head will decide whether to appoint.
  • Qualified teachers: All convictions and cautions will be passed on to the GTC. Inform your head as soon as possible, ideally with a union representative or colleague present. If the GTC believes the offence is relevant to a teacher's registration, disciplinary procedures will be put in place. If the GTC finds a teacher guilty of unacceptable professional conduct, incompetence or a relevant criminal offence, it may issue a reprimand, conditional registration order, suspension order or prohibition order. As part of the hearing, the media may pick up on the case.
      • Belle de Jour, aka Dr Brooke Magnanti, a respected child health researcher, had a second career as a pound;300-an-hour sex worker for a London escort agency
      • Claire Norman hit the headlines in 2000 when it was revealed that the geography teacher worked as a prostitute to pay off her student debts
      • Helen Serghi faced the axe from her job as a teaching assistant when `saucy' pictures she said had been taken years before ended up on the internet
      • Clive Wheeler was severely criticised by the General Teaching Council for England after he promoted unprotected gay sex in the TV documentary Queer as Old Folk.

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