Heads too quick to believe false allegations, MPs report

17th July 2009 at 01:00
Failure to assume teachers are `innocent until proven guilty' is ruining lives and reputations

Headteachers are too quick to suspend staff and under too much pressure to report cases to local authorities once an allegation is made by a pupil, MPs said yesterday.

In a report looking into the false allegations faced by teachers, the Commons schools select committee said more needed to be done to ensure that members of staff were "innocent until proven guilty", and demanded the Government take "immediate action" to prevent more "lives from being ruined".

The committee also called for the Government to amend its guidance to allow headteachers to handle some allegations internally, while giving the newly formed Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) discretion over what information should be disclosed to prospective employers following an allegation.

Barry Sheerman, select committee chairman, told The TES: "There is a fine balance to be struck between safeguarding the rights of children and the rights of those who work with children. Allegations proven to be true must be punished. But the vast majority of complaints made against school staff have little or no foundation.

"My committee heard shocking evidence about the treatment of accused staff and the devastating impact that unfounded allegations of misconduct can have on those involved, which can ruin careers and can come at a significant physical, mental and financial cost."

He added: "I urge the Government to take immediate action to ensure people's lives are not ruined by a failure to deal appropriately, sensitively, and quickly with complaints when they are made."

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, agreed that headteachers can be too quick to suspend and refer cases to local authorities, but said that it was often due to them "erring on the side of caution".

Ms Keates said: "Headteachers are between a rock and a hard place at the moment, because they do not feel they have the backing to make these decisions on child protection issues. They feel vulnerable and often err on the side of caution, so the system needs to change to give heads more confidence."

The NUT backed the committee's findings, calling it an "incisive and comprehensive" report and particularly welcomed its proposals to give the ISA discretion over "soft" information.

Amanda Brown, the NUT's assistant secretary for employment conditions and rights, said: "The Government missed an opportunity to give the ISA the power to assess what information should be passed on from the police to an employer.

"We believe the recommendations made by the committee are a step in the right direction."

The committee described some methods used by employers, such as preventing suspended teachers from meeting colleagues even outside of school after an allegation had been made, as "inhumane" and "unjust".

The report said: "We were shocked that the department condones attempts by employers to bar suspended staff from social contact with colleagues.

"Deliberate and authorised isolation of staff who may be entirely innocent, and who may be disadvantaged by that isolation in gathering evidence to mount a defence in any disciplinary hearing, seems inhumane and unjust. No such bar should apply outside school premises."

During the evidence session last month, MPs heard that one teacher was prevented from having unaccompanied access to his baby daughter following a false allegation, while another was forbidden from watching his son play rugby.

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