Never teach alone, says MP

19th September 2003 at 01:00
Staff should not put themselves at risk of false child abuse claims until the system is reformed. Martin Farrell reports.

It is every teacher's worst nightmare. An accusation of abusing a pupil can instantly turn a classroom champion into a suspected paedophile.

Names and pictures are posted in the local Press and many are ultimately forced to resign - even if they are cleared. A survey by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers reveals only 1 in 25 of those accused over the past decade has been convicted.

Now an MP says the number of false claims has reached such levels that teachers should refuse to teach "vulnerable" pupils alone to minimise the risk of accusations being made.

In an interview with The TES, Claire Curtis-Thomas, who chairs the House of Commons all-party parliamentary group on abuse investigations, said the promise of compensation for victims encouraged people to make false claims.

And she said people working with children in social service care or young offender units face the biggest threat. "At the moment there are literally thousands of people in the UK seeking compensation for being abused by teachers, prison officers, policemen, nurses and doctors who have worked one to one with often disturbed children - and there is little these people can do to defend themselves," she said.

"It ruins lives. Many don't work again after an allegation has been made. I believe the law and the integrity of investigations must be greatly improved."

Mrs Curtis-Thomas is calling for anonymity for anyone accused until they have been found guilty and more rigorous rules governing the way witnesses making accusations are interviewed.

She also wants new guidelines to regulate the way police "trawl" for other alleged victims - insisting the modern day "compensation culture" makes it attractive for false statements to be made.

Mrs Curtis-Thomas will address a conference organised by the United Campaign Against False Allegations of Abuse in London on Saturday September 27.

The organisation - a collection of British campaign groups - is leading calls for a change in the way sex abuse allegations are handled.

Organiser Gayle Saunders, from Falsely Accused Carers and Teachers (Fact), set up following a huge child abuse investigation in north Wales and Merseyside in the Nineties, said: "Our biggest concern is with trawling - where police actively seek people to make accusations, often with the promise of compensation.

"At the moment, people can be interviewed three or four times before an official statement is made. A member of an independent body, as well as police and social workers, should be involved at the earliest stage."

The NASUWT this week distanced itself from Mrs Curtis-Thomas's call. Chris Keates, deputy general secretary, said: "There is a much more straightforward solution. There should be anonymity for people accused. Of course these allegations need to be investigated, but our statistics show a high proportion turn out to be false. Why do these people need to be named?"

The Department for Education and Skills spokesman said: "All schools should have procedures for handling suspected cases of abuse. It is important these strike the right balance between protecting children and protecting possibly innocent members of staff."

The MP will address the conference alongside detective inspector Andrew Parker, of Scotland Yard's child protection team, and Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas think-tank.

The conference takes place on September 27 at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, Holborn. Tickets, costing pound;10, are available by calling 01594 529237

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