New legislation designed to prevent the names of teachers facing allegations from being published is too weak to work, all three major classroom unions have claimed.
Under the Education Bill, currently working its way through Parliament, newspapers will face a maximum fine of only #163;5,000 if they reveal the identity of teachers facing allegations before criminal charges are brought.
Teaching unions the ATL, NASUWT and NUT say they were expecting a more severe punishment for those who broke the proposed laws in this area, labelling the legislation a "damp squib".
The protection was one of education secretary Michael Gove's key pledges before last year's general election. He has boasted of it being the first law to safeguard teachers' reputations.
The Department for Education has said the legislation will mean "a reduction in the number of teachers suffering the consequences of unfounded allegations on their personal and professional lives".
But NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates attacked the size of the proposed fine and other details of the policy. "It only applies to teachers and not support staff, and the maximum fine is so low there is a great risk newspapers will break the law," she said. "There is no point having this reporting restriction if the penalty is not a serious one."
Andy Peart, head of legal and member services for the ATL, said: "This fine is not going to prove to be much of a deterrent. We agree with the spirit of the legislation, but the question is: is it going to make any difference?
"It won't if the newspaper really wants to run the story. For big newspapers it's a very small fine. The message we have had since the election was that this was high on the Government's agenda, so we were expecting legislation which represented that view. It's disappointing."
NUT assistant secretary Amanda Brown is concerned that the legislation will not apply to individuals, particularly parents who could spread allegations via the internet.
"It's not a big fine for a crime which ruins teachers' lives," she said.
DfE documents accompanying the bill say: "A very small number of teachers have been identified in the local press when false allegations have been made against them but, for the teachers affected, the benefits (of the law) would be substantial."
A DfE spokesman said: "The proposed fine is set at the maximum for a summary offence. This is the strongest possible deterrent to breaching the proposed anonymity rules, alongside legal costs and the huge damage to a news organisation's reputation by being found guilty of breaking the law."
FALSE ALLEGATIONS - Pupil fiction
This is not a new issue for school staff. In 2009, half of all teachers who participated in an ATL survey said someone at their current school or college had had a false allegation made against them by a pupil or a member of their family.
A third of the 1,155 members questioned in May 2009 said a pupil had made false allegations against them, and 17 per cent said an accusation had been made against them by parent or other family member.
Half of all the allegations were dismissed immediately. In 5 per cent of cases the teacher was suspended while the allegation was investigated, and 10 per cent of the teachers involved were disciplined by the school. The police were notified in 16 per cent of cases.