Why the school pervs are always with us

27th January 2006 at 00:00
Ruth Kelly's apparent failure to act decisively on the results of the inquiry, conducted by Sir Michael Bichard into the Soham murders, has, in recent times, sent shivers down the spines of parents in England and Wales.

Various "Mr Pervs" have been hauled out from behind blackboards and exposed as sex offenders or individuals who have been cautioned for downloading child pornography via the internet.

In Scotland, it would seem that the General Teaching Council, as the judge of the suitability of teaching candidates for registration, would have prevented the employment of, for instance, Paul Reeve, one of the teachers currently making the headlines in England. But stop there.

The Sex Offenders Register in Scotland contains about 3,000 names but there are only 63 names on the list of those disqualified from working with children. Can't we simply ban everyone on the Sex Offenders Register from working with children?

Predictably, the issue is fraught with complexity. The Sex Offenders Register represents a motley crew. The hardened paedophile is there, but you will also find 15-year-olds who had consensual sex and were caught by the Age of Consent law, and students who exposed themselves by urinating publicly after too much alcohol.

It seems rather bizarre to throw together, on one list, rapists and paedophiles with loved-up teens and drunken youths. One thing is certain: whatever the system is, in England or Wales or Scotland, it has to be clear and beyond ambiguity. Yet no one can offer a cast-iron guarantee.

It is true that, in Scotland, no local authority can employ someone to work with children without the employer checking for previous convictions and inclusion on the Sex Offenders Register. This is of some comfort to parents.

What disturbs me is the sheer number of sex offender cases which are regularly publicised in the media. Police operations into internet pornography seem to yield significant numbers of guilty individuals, usually male. I'm not suggesting they are all flocking to our schools, but are there unsavoury characters working there?

A quick trawl round a few of my own age group reveals that all of us, when school pupils, had been on the receiving end of dubious remarks from male teachers. At the time, we were scared but, as with many victims, somehow thought that we'd brought it on ourselves.

One friend recalled her male PE teacher suggesting that she might do PE topless. She was 14 years old and terrified. To tell an adult would have meant some kind of recrimination, or at least that's what she assumed. Yet that kind of comment is stomach-churning and an example of the dubious sexual innuendo in which a certain type of male teacher engages. These guys are not on any official list but are clocked by teenage girls, who often have an inbuilt radar for detecting smutty interest.

And in 2006? Again, it would seem that the problem has not gone away. I consulted girls from my friends' and relatives' circle and was shocked to be told that suggestive remarks are still being made. Inappropriate body language is also an issue, with girls sometimes feeling that their private space is invaded by teachers who stand too close - for example, leaning over them while they work on a computer.

All of this is a minefield. Inappropriate touching can appear inadvertent.

A salacious glance can be denied. Even the sexually-loaded comment can be made to appear innocent. Do all you can, Jack McConnell, to make the law as tight as possible but no one can legislate for the "twilight pervs."

We - the teaching profession - must police that ourselves although, understandably, we find it enormously difficult. As a parent, I'd be absolutely horrified to think of anyone who, in loco parentis, took advantage of that position. Children need all the protection they can get.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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