Official silence on naked truth

12th September 1997 at 01:00
Jennie Bristow reports on staff and student unease about the handling of a photography-course scandal at Stockton and Billingham College

Now is enrolment time for further education. But at Stockton and Billingham College, one group of students will not be paying their fees. Following a scandal over the taking of semi-nude photographs, the City and Guilds 7470 course in professional photography has been cancelled and the course tutor, Denis Dunning, has resigned.

The story of 24-year-old student Julie Clayton in her swimsuit mimicking famous "nude" poses came to the college's attention after a student on a different course attended the 7470 class one evening and complained to the college about what the students were doing. College staff raided the photography studio, suspended Dunning, interviewed some of the students and later cancelled the course.

Since Dunning's resignation, the facts of the case have been surrounded in secrecy. The college's public-relations company would give only one statement - "Stockton and Billingham College is wholly satisfied with its actions in dealing with this issue and has no further comment to make" - and programme team manager Anne Attwood said the college could not comment "for legal reasons".

Dunning himself is understood to have signed a confidentiality clause which bars him from speaking to anyone about the case. The students, however, are vociferous in their defence of Dunning and their belief that they have done nothing wrong. So what really went on there?

Steve Williams, a 44-year-old student, said: "The college has been extremely heavy-handed and misjudged the entire situation."

From what students of the Stockton and Billingham College and lecturers who work in the FE sector elsewhere say, it appears that the issue is not merely what is and is not pornography. This dispute raises fundamental questions about the nature of the tutor-student relationship.

Although the CG7470 class is a course in advanced photography the students are at different levels with some, like Julie, using the class to complete modules for a GCSE course.

It is an evening class for mature students, but last term there was a 15-year-old girl in the class studying for an A-level. Such a mixed class is inevitably difficult to teach, but the students are full of praise for their lecturer, claiming that he put his own time and resources into the class, allowed them a free rein and treated them like adults. The students themselves were so motivated that they bought their own materials and organised field trips.

Close colleagues said Dunning, who has been working at the college for more than 20 years, did not resign due to any accusations such as sloth from his students - a charge often levelled by managements in suspension cases, says the further and higher education watchdog, the Campaign for Academic Freedom and Standards.

This was a complex case, said Dr Kevin Maloney, secretary of CAFAS. "Despite the complexities within the law, lecturers can teach their students as is thought appropriate by the lecturers, institutions and students. That general freedom must be defended."

Rather, staff and students suggest, it came about because he put too much into this work, and treated his students too much like adults.

During the college's investigation, two members of college management interviewed a long-term student, Steve Jackson, aged 46.

Jackson has since told The TES that they were not concerned just with the pictures of Julie, but interested in Dunning's relationship with the students in the class.

For example, he said, they "interrogated me" about a picture taken on a field trip to the Lake District, in which Dunning had his arm around Julie. It had been part of a group shot where they all linked arms.

The students swear that this, and the other examples of Dunning's "misconduct", were totally innocent. There is no evidence or any formal charges to the contrary. Yet what the evidence does show is that Dunning had a relationship to his class which was more like a friend than a tutor.

As concern about harassment charges and abuses of power becomes ever more prominent in FE and HE institutions, keeping a professional distance from students, regardless of their age, has become a near obsession, according to CAFAS. Often there are no formal rules governing what is and is not a professional distance.

Published advice on relations between staff and students, from the lecturers' union NATFHE, says some styles of college management "are prepared to treat as disciplinary offences a whole range of behaviour towards students which is not explicitly forbidden".

This could feasibly apply to semi-nude shots, although Stockton and Billingham College has no formal rules on the taking of photographs.

But even if the college's rules were to justify its actions, staff and students question whether it was fair for the college to take things so far. And they have a string of other questions they say management has failed to answer. What was really wrong with adults taking pictures of each other nude or partially clothed, provided it was not for pornographic purposes?

FE colleges are not schools, they insist, and adults should not be treated like babies. If the matter is complicated by the presence of a minor, is that Dunning's fault? FE colleges are supposed to be adult environments: should colleges bring children in if it means stifling the activities of the adults at whom the course is aimed?

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