It's time we had a code of conduct

28th November 2008 at 00:00

Sue Bridehead, the unconventional young teacher and proto-feminist in Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, would surely have found herself in trouble with the General Teaching Council for England had it existed in 19th-century Wessex.

Thankfully, living with a man and bearing his children out of wedlock would not these days be regarded as a disciplinary offence in the teaching profession, though even today it would be unwise for anyone working in a strict faith school.

Times change and so too do our attitudes to what is acceptable conduct? What, then, are we to make of the 55 incidents of misdemeanours committed by teachers outside work that were considered by England's GTC last year (pages 20-23)?

Most of these fall into the following categories: motoring offences (mostly drink-related), dishonesty, violence, use of drugs and, surprisingly, firearms. As our analysis asks, do teachers who have already been punished by the courts deserve further sanctions by their own professional body?

These cases beg the question, what exactly should we expect of teachers in their private lives? Should a teacher convicted of a drink-driving offence where no one else is injured be faced with professional conduct charges? Probably not. Should a repeat offender, almost certainly battling a drink problem, be suspended from teaching or should they be helped to overcome their problem? These are difficult calls to make.

Most teachers would agree, however, that what they do is different from other careers. They are expected to be role models, acting in loco parentis while carrying out their professional duties, both in and outside the classroom. Deciding where to draw the line between their professional responsibilities and private lives can sometimes be difficult. For example, does a teacher enjoying a Saturday night out drinking with friends have a duty to intervene if she sees one of her pupils misbehaving on the street?

In these rapidly changing times, when the internet creates new opportunities for teachers to find themselves hauled up for misconduct - Facebook anybody? - we need to set clear guidelines of what should be expected of teachers. These should be updated every five years or so to ensure they are still relevant. The GTC, which is about to update its own code of conduct, has an opportunity to take a lead in this.

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