So what do you do when you catch the deputy head bonking the school secretary?

15th October 2004 at 01:00
We've come a long way since women teachers could be sacked for having sex outside marriage. But even in more liberal times, teachers' private lives are subject to public scrutiny. Is this reasonable? And what does it mean for heads? Kate Myers (pictured) examines the dilemmas

'Finding the (male) deputy head in flagrante delicto with the (female) school secretary was not in my rule book. It happened in his office; "out of school time", as he later pointed out. When I went in after knocking, I was shocked by the sight of flailing legs and tights at half mast; my recently appointed secretary emerged from under the deputy's unmistakable bulk. I choose the word "shocked" with care. Not until later did it assume the moral meaning; the first impact was shock, as in "shock and awe".

I had been a head for a few months and had already realised this deputy thought I needed challenging. He was older and more experienced than me and his skills lay in controlling pupils and exerting his own kind of power over staff. He was invariably off site at lunchtime. He was clearly scornful of efforts to broaden the school's intake, socially and academically. So my witnessing of his more carnal tendencies was part of a larger set of concerns. The local authority adviser doubted it was a clear-cut disciplinary case. I later learned that, in that education authority at that time, virtually nothing counted as a "clear-cut disciplinary case".

Accompanied by the chair of governors, I discussed the incident with the deputy and followed this up with a written note. This wasn't correct procedure, but I couldn't ignore it. Three years later he took early retirement, but a lot of harm had been done to the school in the meantime.'

Preparation for school leadership has improved immensely over the past few years, but sex and sexuality are rarely mentioned on leadership courses or in the manuals, so prospective leaders are unlikely to get advice on how to deal with the scene this headteacher describes above.

Nevertheless, many will have to confront complex issues of a sexual nature that demand a quick response. Sometimes the situations would be funny in other contexts; sometimes they are potentially explosive and can lead to bad publicity. The reputation of a school takes a long time to build but is quickly destroyed.

When I discuss such issues at meetings with school leaders, the first reaction is usually amusement, followed by recognition as participants start to nod and remember some similar occurrence. Almost always, after the meeting, someone privately tells me about an incident that, for legal or privacy reasons, they have never discussed; a story pours out.

Sexual relations can occur between adults (consensual and not) as well as between teachers and older pupils (initiated by either party). These issues also affect support staff and other adults involved with schooling, such as governors, local authority employees and even Ofsted inspectors. The responses of those dealing with the situation will need to take into account changes in social attitudes as well as the individuals concerned.

If they are lucky, they may be able to draw on previous professional experience, but contexts are often particular, and different enough to require fresh thinking. At least three issues need to be addressed by school leaders.

First, should values change with fashion or should they be based on a personal value and belief system? What was considered inappropriate behaviour at the beginning of the 20th century no longer reflects widespread views. Until comparatively recently, women teachers were not officially allowed to have sex. If they did so when unmarried, they were "immoral", seen to be setting a poor example and likely to be dismissed. If they married, they had to leave the profession. The marriage bar for women teachers in the UK was not lifted until 1944. A headteacher dealing with an "adulterous" affair involving a member of staff 50 years ago would almost certainly have insisted he or she leave the school. There would be discussion about the sanctity of marriage and the expected behaviour of teachers as role models. Since then attitudes to marriage, sex, divorce and illegitimacy have changed considerably.

If the school is in a community that does not share the school leader's values - for example, a homophobic community that will not tolerate "out" gay or lesbian teachers - decisions are more complex.

Second, when (if at all) are sexual relations between staff the business of school leaders? Many people meet their partners at work. This is likely to be particularly true of jobs that require long hours, leaving little time or energy to socialise outside work. The notion may well bring a wry smile to the lips of heterosexual teachers who work in a predominantly same-sex environment such as most primary and many special schools. But in some primary and special and most large secondary schools there is ample opportunity for relationships between teachers (and between teachers and other adults) to start - and finish - in the workplace, as a visit to the chatroom on the TES website will confirm. Many of these relationships will be of no concern to anyone but those involved. But what happens when colleagues feel the relationship is affecting the school in a negative way? A head whose staff once included a married couple and the husband's new partner describes receiving a staffroom delegation:

'A group of staff asked to see me on behalf of what they described as a "large number of colleagues". This vague statement was backed up by a letter signed by 30 out of 100 staff, including middle managers. They said they were extremely upset and concerned about a young woman head of department whose husband, also on the staff, had left her for one of our heads of year. They wanted me to take action against the husband. I told them that, as headteacher, I was naturally concerned about the welfare of all staff, but it was not possible to make judgments without knowing both sides and the full circumstances. I counselled all those who had come to see me to consider the situation carefully: if anyone felt they had never done anything to hurt another, I would willingly see them to discuss it further.

There was no issue of neglect of duties by any of the people concerned but I realised it must have been difficult for the woman who had been deserted and, of course, I was concerned that a member of staff was unhappy. Through my senior team, I made sure she was supported as much as possible. We were also concerned that the status of the head of year was not jeopardised. It certainly was an undermining situation for her. The man who had left his wife found that his status was negatively affected in school.

The young head of department eventually left for a promotion. The new couple settled down and worked hard. It is all now water under the bridge.'

This head was fairly clear that the relationship between two members of staff was of no business to anyone but those directly involved. But there can be potential conflicts of interest when colleagues get involved with each other. What happens if a head of department or a team leader has a relationship with someone to whom they could give preferential treatment with regard to class allocation, funding or performance management?

Some organisations require staff to declare conflicts of interests, but at what point should this happen? The first date, the first kiss or the first time they sleep together?

Gay and lesbian staff may have particular reasons for not wanting to declare relationships. Our sexuality is part of our identity, but how much of our sexual identity and behaviour is it proper to reveal to our line managers, our colleagues and our students?

Should teachers be accountable for their behaviour outside school? The deputy head in the first scenario shrugged off his behaviour by saying it took place after school. (This view is highly contestable and most school leaders would say anything that takes place on school premises is of potential concern to them.) But what about out of school hours and off the school premises? This is the situation one head had to deal with when a teacher was found at a rave in possession of four ecstasy tablets that she planned to share with friends, and was charged with intent to supply drugs:

'I wanted to be as supportive as possible of a valued, if misguided, colleague who had a previously unblemished record and was well regarded by students, parents and colleagues. The governors' dilemma was that the teacher was charged with a criminal act that could lead to a custodial sentence. At the very least she would be seen by most parents and many of her colleagues as an unacceptable role model for students. The school would be vulnerable to extensive and widespread criticism, especially from the press, if it did nothing.

With the support of the chair of governors, I chose not to act immediately.

Some weeks later, the teacher appeared in court. She pleaded guilty to the charge of supply, to curtail the proceedings and avoid the complications of a prolonged hearing, which might also have involved her friends. It was also likely that the case would attract press attention. The school would then be open to criticism for not taking prior action.

A week before the trial I decided there was no alternative but to suspend the teacher. My sympathy and support for a colleague were outweighed by a much greater responsibility for the school's reputation. This decision was accepted and understood by the teacher and her union representative. The shorter absence from school was much easier to manage - for the school and the teacher. After a brief hearing she was found guilty, but after taking account of her previous good behaviour and excellent character references from well-regarded members of her community, including me, the court gave her a community service sentence.

The governors' disciplinary committee found her guilty of serious misconduct, but chose only to severely reprimand her. Subsequently the teacher has continued to fulfil her responsibilities effectively, but her concern about having to reveal this matter to a prospective employer has, so far, discouraged her from applying for a promotion that is well within her capacity. However, an effective teacher has been able to continue in her current post. This might not have been possible if her case had attracted the publicity anticipated.'

Young teachers entering the profession at the beginning of this century will have been students at a time when taking recreational drugs was considered acceptable by many of their peers. Some of those who took drugs as students will stop as soon as they become teachers; others may continue.

It is clear that any member of staff caught under the influence of drugs (or alcohol) on school premises would be subject to disciplinary action (and possibly legal sanctions). It is less clear what happens if they indulge out of school hours: factors to be taken into account would include whether they were likely to be seen by pupils, what sort of drug they were taking, and so on. Similar issues arise with the Friday night drinking club that some staff belong to. If the drinking happens in the staffroom it is likely to be a legitimate matter for the head to deal with. If it happens in the pub (especially one frequented by pupils andor their families), the boundaries are more ambiguous.

How do school leaders manage this difficult boundary between what is properly the private concern of their staff and what is, whether properly or not, in the public domain? At the beginning of the last century every aspect of a teacher's life could be scrutinised with regard to the role model they were presenting to their pupils. The situation is not so clear today, for example with regard to sexual behaviour, drinks and "recreational" drugs. How do school leaders decide what is acceptable and what is off limits?

The third point to be considered is how the behaviour is perceived and accepted in school. For example, it is not uncommon for adults to act in a sexual manner as part of their "social script", and teachers are no exception. Flirting and sexual bullying happen in many schools and are sometimes used for disciplinary purposes. Pupils, often still learning their "sexual script", are not averse to trying out these strategies with their teachers, particularly young and vulnerable staff.

School leaders have an important role to play in establishing an ethos where the topics raised here can be discussed and anticipated. A good starting point would be to ask yourself: How would we want to react? What would the consequences be for the individuals concerned; for the morale (and perhaps morals) of the pupilsteachersparentscommunity; for the reputation of the school and for future enrolment? Who should make the decision? How would we deal with the media? In this context, practice may not make perfect, but it will almost certainly help.

The case studies are all true stories; some details have been changed to preserve anonymity. Professor Kate Myers is senior associate in leadership for learning at Cambridge University and an adviser for the London Challenge. Teachers Behaving Badly? Dilemmas for School Leaders by Kate Myers with Graham Clayton, David James and Jim O'Brien, is published this week by RoutledgeFalmer. It is available to TES readers at pound;19.99 inc pp (list price pound;22.50). Order on 01264 343071. To join in the discussions on the TES website go to

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