Being caught in the tangled web of a false allegation is a nightmare many struggle to recover from. John Berry reports.
Of all the bogeymen that haunt teachers' nightmares, none is more dreadful than that of the false, malicious allegation. The official line from the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) is that "cases of malicious allegations or false allegations that are wholly invented are very rare".
Most stem from an incident that is open to interpretation by a pupil: someone may have been physically restrained by a teacher, but was that necessary to prevent harm to the pupil or others? In most cases, complaints of this sort are dealt with by the school's routine practices and policies.
But it doesn't matter how rare such cases are. If you're the victim of such an allegation, the world comes crashing down around your ears. For many, like Darren, it is the sheer sense of disbelief that such a thing could happen to you that has the most impact.
"I'd been teaching in the same (inner-city secondary) school for ages," he says. "I was a well established, no-nonsense member of staff and I like to think I was respected by most pupils and by my colleagues.
"When I first heard this allegation had been made, I felt inclined to laugh it off as a kid having a moan because he felt hard done by. I really didn't think anyone would take it seriously."
The nature of the complaint was that Darren had intimidated a particular pupil, that he systematically and regularly singled the boy out for disciplinary actions and that he had physically threatened him. Crucially, the boy was backed in his claim by his parents. Much the same happened to Jake, again in a secondary school. "This particular child alleged that I had manhandled her when she had refused to move away from another crowd of pupils who were causing a nuisance during morning break.
"The very idea that I would do such a thing, especially given the track record of this particularly difficult pupil, is an absolute joke." Unfortunately for Jake, not only did the pupil make the allegation against him, but another pupil corroborated her story and both girls' parents were prepared to back their version of events.
This is where one of the really harsh realities of false allegations begins to bite. "What really got me," says Jake, "was the way that the school was obliged to take it all completely seriously. I can see why they did so - and the fact that they followed correct procedures worked to my benefit in the end. It was just that I was furiously angry that this load of rubbish, cooked up by two mischievous kids, was being given complete credence." You can understand Jake's frustration, but the law is clear that such allegations have to be taken seriously and acted upon.
What is worse for most teachers involved in such cases is the fact that when they are cleared of any misconduct there is usually little redress open to them. At the end of the correct procedures and investigations, Jake and Darren were cleared of any wrongdoing, albeit after a suspension in Darren's case. However, in common with many teachers on the receiving end of such allegations, he decided to resign. Darren says: "Everyone was really supportive throughout and when the whole thing was over, practically everyone - the headteacher, the chairman of governors - admitted they knew it was a load of rubbish. All the same, I'd had it with the school. I know they had to investigate it, but the whole idea that this utter nonsense was given house room just about did for me."
There are two points to be made here. Firstly, Darren's decision to resign is a very common reaction when teachers are victimised in this way. "It's a bit of an old cliche, but despite the support of the school, I still felt as though some mud was sticking. And no matter how hard people had tried to keep everything proper and confidential, kids in school knew what was going on," he says.
Secondly, at the end of it all, even when allegations had been proven to be mischievous, there is little beyond the realms of school discipline that can be used to reprimand the pupils involved. On rare occasions, and depending on the seriousness of the circumstances, there is the possibility of criminal there there are proceedings, such as wasting police time or perverting the course of justice. But such instances are extremely rare. It is a fact of life that the allegation has to be taken seriously and must be investigated.
And it's not just a secondary school issue. Sally was astonished to be informed by her headteacher that a serious allegation had been made against her - once again involving handling and, in this case, marking and wounding a child. "The allegation, bought by the kid's mum, was bad enough, but when you start hearing the words 'suspension', 'police' and 'child protection' you think the world's coming to an end," she says.
Sally was, indeed, suspended and the implications of this, albeit that this is a routine action in such circumstances, are understandably devastating. "I found myself in the world of TV drama, being interviewed by police and with people from social services investigating my actions."
In all three cases, the allegations were not proven and the teachers completely cleared. What is significant, though, is that all three involved their union at the very earliest stage.
Of course, none of this stopped it from being a traumatic and worrying time for them, but advice and expertise was at hand, and this made a crucial difference to their ability to cope with the situation.
Jon Berry is a senior lecturer at Hertfordshire University's School of Education.
Facing the facts
Teachers' union NASUWT has long highlighted the issue of malicious allegations. It claims that accusations against teachers have reversed the normal criminal conventions, with a presumption of guilt unless found otherwise.
Since 1991, the union has recorded 2,538 allegations against its members, of which only 300 have gone to court and 128 resulted in a conviction.
With 111 allegations still outstanding, this means 88 per cent of all claims do not make it to court and just 5 per cent conclude in a conviction.
The NASUWT is campaigning for the law to be changed so that the anonymity of teachers accused of physically or sexually abusing children is protected unless and until they are found guilty in court.
How to protect yourself
Make sure that your union subscriptions are up-to-date. No trade union will represent you if you attempt to join after such an incident has occurred - and such allegations can take you into very tricky waters.
If you are informed of an allegation being made against you, there is a golden rule: as tricky as it may be, say nothing, no matter how difficult it is.
Contact your union representative - this will not be your school rep, but someone from a regional office - and take advice from them.
Do not get involved in any impromptu interviews or start giving written statements, no matter the pressure from heads, governors or whoever else may want to speak to you. There are clear, agreed procedures governing how to act in such circumstances, which your union rep will guide you through.
Try, as far as possible, never to put yourself in a situation where a pupil could make such an allegation. The one thing you can do is to ensure that you avoid being in any place alone with a child, out of sight of others.
No procedure will protect wrongdoers, but latest statistics from the DCSF show that of all allegations - some of which will have been bona fide - only 11 (that's about 0.002 per cent of the teaching population) resulted in court convictions.