No laws for love;Opinion

19th February 1999 at 00:00
Chris Woodhead was right that affairs between pupils and teachers can be educative. Attempts to legislate against passion at school are misguided, says Bob Spooner.

WHEN Chris Woodhead told the Exeter students that an affair between a teacher and a sixth-former might be educative, he was stepping out of role and trying to be human. He probably judged that the questioner had had a relationship with a pupil. He then panicked and, fearing that the press might "Hoddle" him, he apologised and said he hadn't meant what he said. He preferred to be seen as mistaken rather than defend himself as a realist.

For of course the recent proposed legislation, to make it a criminal offence for teachers to have sex with students under 18, is absurd. Twenty years as a head with large mixed sixth forms has taught me that affairs between teachers and students, though not common, do occur. They may or may not be a beneficial experience for both partners; it no doubt depends on how well they treat each other and how loving the relationship is.

In his inimitable way, I suspect that Woodhead will have referred to "experiential learning". This is the current jargon for the fact that we all can learn a lot just from living. It is a truism that some people learn nothing worthwhile from a lot of experience and others a great deal from very little. This is one of the reasons why curricula vitae are never worth the discs they are stored on. Certainly the loss of virginity, like a broken piece of porcelain, can never be repaired. Nowadays few men and women want to repair it. They see it as an opening of a door rather than a form of ruin. But it is something significant in their lives, and it is a rash parent and a rash head who would drive a lovelorn 17-year-old through the courts.

Of course, as often as not, both the teacher and the student will already be sexually experienced. The share value of virginity continues to fall on the footsie index. I would not use the term "educative", but a sexual experience within a loving relationship will make a greater contribution to an adolescent's happiness than casual sex at parties. A high percentage of affairs between teacher and student are sincere. It has always been too risky for teachers to indulge in casual sex with students. They do not trade marks for favours. They lose their hearts as a prelude to losing their heads.

There may well be a heightened excitement caused by the need for secrecy. The knowledge that the teacher is taking a big risk is very flattering and it is this element that makes students abnormally vulnerable. It is unlikely that teachers will knowingly use this ploy, for the risk has never been imaginary, but if I am wrong in this, then criminalising it will heighten the flattery and increase the vulnerability. If discovered, the whole affair will mark both of them for life. The teacher may go to jail or they might embark on a rash marriage to save that happening. I would not want a child of mine to suffer in this way or be put under this pressure. I would also hope to be told what was going on, so that I could be supportive and understanding. Criminalising it makes hugger-mugger more certain.

It is a rash person who would evaluate someone else's love affair. I learned as a headteacher to respect students' morals and not to condemn them hastily. If a love affair sprang up between a teacher and a student, I reckoned not to interfere unless it was forced on my attention. Then I took at face value what they chose to tell me about it. I was once obliged to intervene in an affair between a young teacher and a 16-year-old boy. She said she loved the boy and was doing him no harm. He said he had grown up since the affair started and she was too emotionally immature to satisfy him, so he was going to end the relationship. The boys' parents thanked me for "taking it in hand" and pronounced themselves highly satisfied. Who knows whether I was right? Truth lies at the bottom of a well and is sometimes best left there.

Experience taught me not to be over-confident; for all that I am certain that this legislation, tacked onto a sensible Bill, is nonsense. Worse than that it is a criminal error. One must hope that the Government will think again.

Bob Spooner was a headteacher of Foxwood comprehensive in Leeds for 20 years

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