Return to hell

20th June 2003 at 01:00
Just when he thought the nightmare was over, Bill Hughes was rearrested on fresh charges of sexually abusing pupils. After a four-day trial, a crown court jury took less than an hour to acquit him. Wendy Wallace talks to a man whose life and career have been shattered by false allegations

Almost exactly a year ago, Friday magazine published a story headlined "Every male teacher's worst nightmare" (May 24, 2002). In it, a 47-year-old primary teacher described what happened when a child in his Year 3 class made false allegations of sexual abuse against him. He was arrested and suspended from school, and his home was searched. After two months of uncertainty - with tension and depression affecting his whole family - the case was dropped for lack of evidence. The story ended with the writer anticipating his return to the classroom.

But shortly after the anonymous account appeared, the nightmare resumed. It went on, and on. Now Bill Hughes is going public, hoping his story may give succour to anyone facing a similar situation (and hundreds are, according to teacher organisations) and act as a warning to anyone who believes, as he once did, that "it couldn't happen to me".

Bill Hughes is at home in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, on a sunny weekday morning, apparently cheerful, and immaculate in casuals. Birds sing loudly in the well-kept garden that he has had too much time to tend over the past two years. Inside, on the kitchen table, are two massive files of papers relating to the case, letters of support and press cuttings. He has the photos the police seized when they searched his house for child pornography - simple class portraits he'd taken for the children to use in an art project.

Mr Hughes qualified as a teacher in 1976, but went into arts administration, running an Arvon Foundation writing centre in Yorkshire with his wife, Barbara, and later becoming general manager of Birmingham Repertory theatre for three years. After being made redundant in 1993, he started helping out in his youngest daughter's primary school while considering what to do next. "I found I enjoyed it," he says, and he was soon offered a temporary class teacher's post there. "As usual, I was the only male," he says. In April 1996, he took a permanent job in the school, where he stayed for four years. "I thoroughly enjoyed it, but felt I had more to offer. I decided to think about a deputy's job."

When a Worcestershire county adviser asked him to go on secondment to a school in special measures, he demurred. But following a second approach, he agreed to go. He started at the school in September 2001, in an open-plan classroom, with a "lively and challenging" group of children who'd had several teachers the previous year. "We had lots of fun," he says, "but they knew they couldn't overstep the mark. In that respect, they made a dramatic improvement."

Mr Hughes believed malicious allegations could never happen to him - not because he was naive, but because he took precautions. He made sure the classroom door and windows were never covered with posters or work, he never kept a child back alone in the classroom at break or after school, and left his door open whenever he could. "I knew I was vulnerable, from day one," he says. "It was always at the back of my mind."

But he was wrong. The allegations came at the end of March, when Mr Hughes had been at the school almost two terms. A girl told her mother he had molested her every day since September, in literacy hour. What followed - humiliating police interviews, a spell in the cells, suspension from school, police bail and a trip to the GP for tranquillisers - was the stuff of his first article. He tells his nightmare epic fluently, almost dispassionately now, and reaches its apparent conclusion - the dropping of the case by the police last spring. "I thought, 'Now I can start rebuilding'," he says. But then it all began again.

Six weeks after the police told him the case had been dropped, and while he was waiting for Worcestershire to complete a "review", the police made contact again. They asked him and his solicitor to a meeting which was subsequently postponed. After an agonising delay - during which time a colleague informed Mr Hughes that playground gossip about him was running wild - the police rearrested him and told him two other children had made allegations against him and that they were reviving the initial investigation, too. Last August, he was charged on five counts of indecent assault on three children - two girls and a boy.

The allegations - that he had his hands in children's underwear in an open-plan classroom of 22 vocal seven and eight-year-olds in a school subject to frequent and unannounced visits from the full panoply of inspectors and advisers associated with special measures - were improbable, if not, as one police officer concluded after seeing the classroom, impossible. But proceedings continued regardless.

Still suspended on full pay, Mr Hughes began to dread his appearance at the magistrates' court - when the case was likely to become public knowledge.

(In the event, his "not guilty" plea was heard early in the day, and went unreported.) His union representative, Allan Porter of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, was helpful and supportive. But Mr Hughes - a northerner used to "getting on with it, dealing with it" - became very low as the ordeal continued. "I was on the edge of tears all the time. It was there constantly, like a physical object hanging over me."

He avoided leaving the house if possible, and took a 25-mile round trip to the supermarket rather than use his local one and risk bumping into anyone he knew. Some days he felt suicidal. A spell of counselling helped and family relationships grew stronger. His wife and two daughters never wavered. "Having them standing by me is what's got me through it," he says.

A date was set for the transfer of the case to the crown court in Worcester, in January this year. "Like a good teacher, I rehearsed," he says. "I watched a trial at Worcester, talked to the family about what to expect." But Christmas was grim as they accepted that if he was found guilty - and the justice system thus far had inspired little confidence - it would be their last together for some time. His mother and siblings were also very distressed. The case was finally heard in March this year. Mr Hughes's barrister told him to tell the truth - that he was innocent and had no idea why the children might have accused him. Fulsome testimonials from teachers, heads and parents were read out in court and the barrister put it to the jurors that the three children involved had discussed the original allegations at a birthday party. After listening to four days of evidence, the jury took less than an hour to find Mr Hughes not guilty on all counts.

It didn't feel like a victory, he says. Afterwards, in the corridor, he collapsed from a panic attack and thought he was dying. Next week, Mr Hughes will attend the mandatory local authority review of his case; only after that will his future be discussed. He is off the beta-blockers and sleeping pills now, although not, for the time being, the tranquillisers.

His GP now feels able to prescribe two months' supply at a time, which she did not previously. He still feels imprisoned in his house, under-occupied, wounded. He doesn't care to look at children now; at a recent meal out, he moved his chair rather than face children at the next table. His teaching career is ruined. "I have no inclination to go into the classroom again. I think it would kill me, to be blunt." There is no prospect of compensation either. "Who would I sue?" he says. "The children?"

Both the ATL and the National Union of Teachers report that the number of cases of allegations of abuse of all kinds is dropping slightly. Figures from the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers show 159 allegations were made against its members in 2002, compared with an all-time high of 191 cases in 1999. Of NASUWT's 159 cases last year, two have led to convictions and 54 are outstanding. Three members are said to have committed suicide.

Nationally, the Government has no idea of the scale of the problem. To this end, it has created 24 regional co-ordinators - the first was appointed in 2001 - to collect information and speed up the process.

Although the Department for Education and Skills advises that suspension need not be automatic, only experienced or brave headteachers tend to take the more difficult decision not to suspend. And while suspension is not meant to imply guilt, school communities draw their own conclusions.

"Suspension is not a neutral act," says Allan Porter of the ATL. "Parents soon learn that the teacher isn't off sick. Particularly in primary schools, it becomes common knowledge that the teacher's been suspended, and in the parents' eyes that is tantamount to guilt. Most of the cases I've dealt with didn't justify suspension."

Mr Hughes's case is not typical, says Mr Porter, in that it went to the crown court - few get that far. But long periods of suspension remain typical for teachers accused of any form of abuse. Mr Porter has dealt with 10 cases in his 18 months in his current ATL post and says automatic suspension from school followed by lengthy delays in police investigations remain the norm. The experience is inevitably traumatic. "The majority do go back to school," he says. "But they go back very different people."

Teacher Support Line offers telephone counselling: 0800 562561; What if it happens to me?

Bill Hughes on lessons learned from his ordeal

* Police officers know little about how schools work. They need to be "guided" by heads and LEA officials at all stages.

* Suspension is meant to be a "neutral" act, but parents and the public see it as an acknowledgement of guilt.

* If you are appointed as the person to maintain contact with a suspended colleague, treat the job seriously. You are vital to that person. Keep in touch with regular phone calls and any news from school.

* LEAs must protect the children in their schools. They must also protect and support their employees. There were times when I felt abandoned.

* You need your family in such situations. Do not push them away. Share everything with them. Let them read all the documents. Trust them.

* Your friends are important too. Particularly the ones who are prepared to put their heads above the parapet to support and defend you.

How to protect yourself in the classroom

* Don't keep pupils behind at play or lunchtime to complete work or to hear them read.

* Don't cover the windows in your classroom with posters, pictures or children's work. Leave your door open, if possible, during lessons.

* Keep good records of what you say to parents at consultation evenings.

* Make sure you are familiar with LEA guidelines relating to your professional conduct.

* Make good use of your union - it is more experienced than you might realise at dealing with such allegations.

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