Lifeline for staff accused of abuse

25th November 2005 at 00:00
Teachers who face malicious charges should now be cleared far more quickly, reports William Stewart.

Unions have welcomed new government guidance designed to speed up investigations into staff accused of abusing pupils. They say it will reduce the risk that innocent people are smeared by being publicly identified.

However, the Government has stopped short of guaranteeing that all accused staff will remain anonymous until they are charged, as the NASUWT union wants.

The advice replaces local arrangements with the first standard national procedure for England, and sets out a clear timetable for dealing with cases.

The Department for Education and Skills says the guidance addresses concerns raised by the NASUWT in its long campaign against malicious allegations.

The guidelines, which were developed with the Home Office and the Crown Prosecution Service, say local authorities and police forces should have named officers overseeing the investigation and working to cut delays.

In cases investigated by the police, they say that, wherever possible, officers should consult the CPS after a maximum of four weeks and decide whether to charge the individual, end the matter or continue to investigate.

If further inquiries are needed, the guidelines, which came into force this week, say dates for subsequent reviews should be set, ideally every fortnight.

They say police should protect confidentiality and guard against unwanted publicity during investigation. Under normal circumstances names should not be released to the media until charges are made.

Chris Keates, the NASUWT general secretary, said: "The fast-tracking of investigations should reduce significantly the opportunity for public and media exposure which exacerbates the devastating impact of being falsely accused."

She said teachers would welcome the call in the guidelines for heads to consider punishing pupils who make malicious allegations and for police to consider action where a false accuser is not a pupil.

The guidelines say schools should not automatically suspend accused staff and should support them and keep them informed of the progress of the case.

Ms Keates also welcomed the requirement to keep accurate records of the results of investigations until the member of staff retires. This would prevent people from being denied jobs on the basis of inaccurate information.

In cases where there is no possible criminal offence and it is decided that a formal school disciplinary hearing is unnecessary the guidelines say schools should resolve issues within three working days.

Where an investigation is needed to decide whether a formal hearing is required, a report should be completed within 10 working days and a decision taken within a further two working days. If a formal disciplinary hearing is needed, it should take place within 15 days.

Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, said: "I am very much aware of the devastating effect that being wrongly or unfairly accused can have on an individual, their family and career, and how delay and publicity can exacerbate that."

Bill Owens was suspended from his job as an information and communications technology teacher at a comprehensive near Bristol for more than two years after a 14 year-old girl claimed he had indecently assaulted her in class.

News of the allegation soon spread through his community. When the case finally came to court until July 2003 the jury took less than 40 minutes to unanimously clear him.

However, it was another six months before he was re-instated, by which time he was off sick with clinical depression.

Now retired, aged 58, he said the regular update meetings in the new guidelines might have been helpful but generally he felt they offered inadequate protection.

"I don't think the guidelines will make very much difference at all," he said. "Granting anonymity until someone is found guilty would be the one thing that would benefit people in my position."

* william.stewart@tes.co.uk

Ampleforth 13

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