When Renate Williams landed her first teaching post she felt she had finally found 'the right thing to do'. A few months later she was a wreck, destroyed by the job and up in court accused of indecently assaulting a pupil. She was acquitted, but only now, with her story corroborated by a damning report on her old school, can she start thinking of getting back into teaching, she tells Karen Thornton
Ms Williams has been an excellent student and shown an ability to make a notable impression in a school. She is knowledgeable, has a tremendous enthusiasm for her subject and projects a strong but delightful personality. Her personal organisation, diligence and initiative are beyond question... The quiet strength of her personality and sound classroom management allowed her to be undeterred by the few inevitably troublesome characters she encountered. She is very good at keeping a clear focus on subject specific learning outcomes without losing sight of the value of drama in the more general development of young people... Tutors here and in school predict she will go on to make a tremendous contribution to her first school.
It's a glowing reference, the kind any newly qualified teacher, fresh out of college, would be proud of. So how, barely six months after it was written, did the same NQT come to be a valium-popping drunk who, on a residential field trip, went skinny-dipping in front of her teenage boy pupils and was then accused of seducing one of them? Renate Williams, now 33, was unanimously acquitted last November of indecently assaulting a 15-year-old. She told Worcester crown court that she had hit the bottle because of the stress caused by overwork, lack of support from other staff, and by having to deal with "socially abusive, manipulative and aggressive teenagers". She admitted lying to the police about her night-time dip during a trip to Wales by saying she was wearing a body stocking. But she vehemently denied having sex with an under-age pupil. The jury accepted she was the victim of a schoolboy conspiracy.
However, the court case did Renate Williams no favours, leaving her personal and professional reputation in tatters. The "wild, weird, wacky" and flirtatious "drama queen" who sent intimate Christmas cards to her boy charges signed "Miss Magical Seductive Ren", found her "Bohemian" lifestyle under the microscope. The tabloid press had a field day with intimate details: she liked to walk barefoot, wore toe-rings and anklets, spent time in Buddhist monasteries in Thailand, and was variously described as an ex-trapeze artist and failed actress.
She was only truly vindicated in February, when the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, ordered the publication of a damning report by social services inspectors on the privately run Worcestershire boarding school where she had taken up her first - and so far only - teaching post, in September 1998. It corroborated the picture she had painted in court of a school with a heavily sexualised atmosphere, where bullying was prevalent, pupils were subject to an "erratic" disciplinary system, and staff felt the concerns they raised were not acted upon. Worse still, it raised serious issues of child protection: there was poor or non-existent vetting of staff; four staff had been subject to child abuse investigations in the past five years and two of them were sent to prison; the complaints procedure was "inadequate"; and it was widely felt that inappropriate staff behaviour went unpunished.
The inspectors gave the school six months to demonstrate that care arrangements meet the required standards and the governors have drawn up an urgent action plan.
When we finally meet, some weeks after our first telephone conversation, Renate - "Ren" to her friends - grins and looks skywards at the mention of the "Bohemian" tag. For the record, she is wearing a toe-ring and an anklet, and is happy to walk barefoot to the beach for a photo shoot. But she is also wearing a long-sleeved black top, ankle-length black skirt, a bracelet and necklace, and the beach is only three minutes away from the back garden of the friend's house on the outskirts of Poole, Dorset, where she has been staying.
In our previous conversations, she had been anxious to talk about the pressures on her, as an inexperienced NQT, and dubious about wanting - or being able - to return to teaching. Now, a few weeks later, beside the sea she loves, she seems more confident that she might return to a classroom - if there is a school out there brave enough to take her on.
Back at the house, the discussion jumps around, from how quickly she felt overwhelmed by work at the school - which cannot be identified for legal reasons - to the court case, and then back to her student days, and her passion for drama and travel.
She grew up in Dorset, where she sought refuge after being suspended and then sacked at the beginning of last year. The youngest of four children, she was raised by her grandparents, whom she calls mum and dad. She grew up knowing her biological mother as her sister; her father disappeared when she was a baby and did not see her for almost 22 years. Her "mother", Betty, was a full-time congregational minister, which meant her "father" (grandfather), Basil, was the main carer. Renate remembers an energetic childhood, spent playing football, climbing trees, and taking riverside walks.
"She (Betty) was the first congregational minister to be married and have children, so there is a strong role model there."
Renate's barefoot lifestyle took off when she left school and home to study A-levels at Bournemouth and Poole college; from there it was on to Bristol university. The university had "a very academic approach" to drama, and she found herself drawn to a more physical theatre. She took a part-time role at a Bristol circus school while still a student, and went full-time when she left university, studying mime, movement and music, and specialising in acrobatics and trapeze. She got a job at a theatre group in Colchester, performing in schools and taking part in workshops.
A year spent travelling through Burma, Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, and Sumatra - during which she studied Buddhism - was followed by two years working at a meditation centre in South Wales. She also worked for a theatre-in-education company, before returning to Dorset and eventually deciding to become a teacher.
"It was that desire to share the skills I had in a useful and socially constructive way," says Renate. "I felt I wanted to be contributing as well as learning. Theatre work is very unreliable. It's fine when you're in your twenties or thirties, but by the time you're in your forties you don't want to be living that way." She signed up for a post-graduate course at Reading university, a little nervous about whether her circus skills, theatre knowledge and previous degree were still relevant and up-to-date. But they proved a sound foundation for a successful year.
"I wasn't struggling; I could do it, and do it well. There was a great feeling of achievement and satisfaction. My self-esteem and confidence rose."
She left Reading with the aforementioned glowing reference, and feeling positive about teaching. "I had found the right thing to do," she says. But there was a warning note in her tutor's final assessment. "Self imposed isolation and taking on too much were my possible weaknesses, which precisely caused my downfall," she says. Her experience of teaching practice heavily influenced her decision to go for the job that was to destroy her. She worked in two all-boys' schools, one a grammar school with a mixed sixth-form and very able pupils, the other a mixed comprehensive where she found drama was a way through to the less able students. The pupils at the Worcestershire school seemed to combine the qualities of both groups.
"Drama is an amazing subject for teaching those social skills. You can really break through to pupils who see themselves as stupid or incapable," she says. "It was this wonderful potential of working with boys of high ability and using drama as a medium for less capable students. But that wasn't the reality."
The warning signs were there. The job was for a performing arts specialist. She was a drama specialist, and pointed out she was not an expert at music. As long as she could co-ordinate instrumental lessons and "do the basics", this would not be a problem, she was told. She was also asked to take on teaching responsibilities - she thought jointly with another member of staff - for a GCSE course in European studies, which was outside her field of study.
Her responsibilities for drama extended to primary age pupils - again, outside her experience - and her drama studio was a temporary building, 10 minutes from the main school, and in a poor state of repair. She also had form tutor responsibilities, and was taken on as other, more experienced staff were being made redundant. (The social services report notes the high turnover of staff and that in the previous three years 14 care staff had left the 65-pupil school.) "If I had had more experience, those signals would have caused alarm and I would have questioned more," she says. She voiced her concerns about the workload on the first two in-service days of her first term, but says they were dismissed as the "alarmist quibblings" of an NQT. When she queried her ability to teach the European studies course, she was told she couldn't do any worse than the previous year's results.
By the end of the week, the boys had also started to make an impression. "In one of my first lessons, three boys flatly refused to do the work. The others were disruptive and intrusive, in terms of their verbal questioning, asking about my sexual preferences, what kind of man I preferred, had I had a relationship with anyone in my previous school. This was normal classroom vocabulary. I had never come across anything like it before. One of the boys left by a window. Occasionally a fight would kick off. It was unpredictable, potentially violent, and you never knew when it was going to kick off next."
When she reported her concerns about two boys who had threatened another pupil, they warned her not to "grass them up" again. The victim was so intimidated that he asked her not to intervene next time. No action was taken by the school.
"There was a normalisation of inconsistent behaviour and dealing with that behaviour," says Renate. "The way in which situations occurred, the type of situations that occurred and the way they were handled, was wholly inconsistent, and that was normal. There was no clear order, no cohesive policy; you couldn't rely on support from other staff members. The unpredictability of that created the chaos." The bullying, the sexualised environment, including "girlie" pictures on dormitory walls, the inconsistent behaviour and discipline would all later be raised in the social services report.
Out of her depth, feeling isolated, stressed, and drinking heavily, she dug her heels in, determined to make it through a whole year, and pinning her hopes on the expected arrival of a new headteacher in January. The head never arrived, and she returned from the Christmas holiday to find herself suspended over the boys' allegations about the field trip.
"A lot of it was about being a young, inexperienced teacher. You are trying to prove yourself, you don't know your own capabilities, you don't know when you're overloaded. In the state sector, you would have to have a mentor, attend training, and have contact with other NQTs. You would be supervised and have lessons observed and plans checked. The only support I was receiving was from equally overworked and over-stressed teachers."
She wasn't told the full nature of the allegations until she went for police questioning. "At that point, it didn't really matter, because I was already so broken. I had left the school." She returned home to Dorset, to the support of friends and family, and says she quickly began to recover from her dependency on drink and antidepressants. There were some difficult moments in the nine-month run-up to the court case. Her bail conditions required her not to come into contact with children. It meant that when her young nephew was staying with her parents she was unable to visit the family home. Yet the hearing itself - despite the salacious headlines - proved "empowering". "Finally, what I had been talking about had to be heard," she says.
The jurors were able to see both her and the boys in the witness box, to hear the kind of language the pupils used. School reports on some of the boys' behavioural problems were also presented.
We're on the beach, and Renate is posing for pictures. She is shorter than I expected, with the quiet poise and balance of a dancer. It's a hazy day, the sun struggling to break through and never quite managing it. She says she would like to stay around here; she didn't realise how much she missed swimming and the sea until she moved to study at Bristol. It was November when she went swimming on that fateful field trip and now it's a chilly day in March, but she was swimming only two nights ago.
She's considering writing to Reading, to see if her tutors would still be prepared to give her a reference. A return to teaching is a possibility, maybe in a year or so. For now, she is off to the Middle East, to travel and study religion again.
She has finally come to terms with what happened. "When I left the school, I was totally broken. I came back, started to get better, and to take account of my part in it. In working out my part, I could see what was not my responsibility. The way the boys responded, the way the school had been run, was not my responsibility.
"I was learning, growing up, becoming accountable, accepting my part - but also saying, I'm not wholly to blame." She doesn't want to be seen as a scapegoat, or a victim, and doesn't hold the boys "fully" responsible. "It's far more the environment of the school which endorsed it," she says. "The school acted on the boys' allegations, yet hadn't acted on anything else. They were hoping the problems would go away, that I would go away.
"I feel the boys will have consequences to face. It must be really hard, at 15, to back down. The fact that the legitimacy of a child's statement is not challenged until crown court puts incredible pressure on the boys as well. They were suffering, I was suffering. I was a perfectly ordinary person, yet my capability and suitability to teach was questioned."
"I'm more measured these days, I do look into things more carefully. I love teaching, I have always loved drama, I'm good at it. There is nothing legally stopping me now, and that's a real gift."