When an affair is not a crime

10th October 2008 at 01:00

Chris Keates, the intrepid leader of the NASUWT, bravely walked into the minefield of pupil-teacher relationships this week and very nearly got her legs blown off.

She was right to say that sex between a teacher and a pupil who is over the age of consent should not be a criminal offence. Whether she fully expected to receive the flak she did is another matter. While her call for the law to be reviewed earned support from other classroom unions, the response from school leaders was distinctly muted. You could almost see headteachers reaching for their tin helmets and running for cover.

Inevitably, Ms Keates's comments have led to misinterpretation in certain quarters, with the News of the World wilfully claiming that "teachers want right to bed their pupils". But let us be clear.

Teachers should be subject to the law in exactly the same way as other citizens. They should not be criminalised for doing something that other adults, however unwisely, are perfectly entitled to do.

It became illegal for teachers to have a sexual relationship with a pupil in their school under the age of 18 under the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Previously, the law only applied to children under the age of consent, 16. The change was part of a new offence involving "breach of trust", which also applies to other professionals who work with children and young adults.

Yet why do we need this new law? No one would argue that it is OK for a teacher to sleep with a pupil, whatever his or her age, but surely the best way to deal with such misdemeanours involving sixth formers who are no longer minors is through disciplinary procedures.

A teacher found to be having an affair with a 17-year-old pupil in their care would be guilty of gross breach of trust. They should be struck off the teaching register and never be allowed to teach again. But they should not be sent to prison or placed on the sex offenders register, in the same category as child rapists and other paedophiles.

Teachers should be treated equally under the law with the rest of society, not singled out as a special case.

Ms Keates should be applauded for raising this delicate issue. This is a bad law which should be reviewed urgently.

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