What keeps me awake at night - The whisper that needed to be heard

4th May 2012 at 01:00

My dad was in hospital recently. He's 90 and the experience wasn't brilliant. I'm reluctant to criticise nurses because, having worked in the public sector all my life, I guess that the obvious isn't obvious when the whole ward needs you.

But during a particularly horrid night, one kindly nurse stood out, paying him attention and paying me attention. She sat next to his bed and her short, dark hair fell across her face as she wrote his notes - and I was back in a headteacher's office 15 years ago, with a girl whose head dropped lower and lower as she pulled her dark hair over her face.

Her voice was so quiet that we could hardly hear her telling us of the sexual approach made to her by a young teacher during a school trip to Scotland. At the hospital, she recognised me before I recognised her. I had been in my first management post; unsure of myself, unsure of her. Complaints like this were rare. There was no evidence, schools operated in a climate of secrecy and pupils weren't encouraged to talk to teachers.

"It ruined my life," she said later, as we talked in the hospital shop. "The teacher was told off; I was told I'd misunderstood. I didn't trust anyone for years. I don't now, not really. Not because of what he did, but because no one believed me."

Flashback to last year. Two girls stand in front of my desk. They want to tell me that the new PE teacher, good looking, young, looks at them "funny". Two lessons later, two has become half the tutor group, desperate to tell me he isn't "right". They feel he's looking at them "as if he fancies us".

I follow the guidance; talk to a horrified young teacher; go through the procedures. By the morning, parents are on the phone: do we have a paedophile in school? "We don't," I tell them. "We are sorting it, don't worry. Reassure your children."

And then at lunchtime, crying but absolutely determined, one of the two girls comes to see me. "We made it all up, miss. He put us in detention and we wanted to get our own back. We never thought it would be like this. Everyone started saying stuff and putting it on Facebook and texting and, you know ..."

Well, I do know. I'm an English teacher. I've read The Crucible. I've been a teenage girl. And it is all so very complicated, because teachers get it wrong and children get it wrong and as a society we get it wrong, too.

But I think of the little girl talking so quietly that we could hardly hear her and how, in the end, we neither heard nor listened.

The writer is a headteacher in the East of England. To tell us what keeps you awake at night, email david.marley@tes.co.uk.

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