Yes, it could be you

26th May 2006 at 01:00
How could reprimanding a pupil lead to an allegation of indecent assault? For Nick Southgate, the answer involved a police investigation, lost wages and a permanent mark of suspicion. But perhaps the greatest blow is the realisation that taking a class will never be quite the same again.

How easy is it for a pupil to get a teacher into trouble? The kind of trouble that might finish your career, cause the loss of your house and even your friends, and give you a criminal record? The answer is: easy. I know because it happened to me.

It began like this. I am a supply teacher in primary schools, and I was driving home one day last November. My mobile rang. It was a human resources adviser at the city council. I'll call him Mr Edwards. He had received a very serious complaint from a school I had taught at recently, he said. We needed to meet urgently to decide if I should be suspended. He would not give me any details. I tried to concentrate on the road ahead as he told me I could not teach until the matter had been resolved. All future bookings had to be cancelled. I arrived home feeling under siege.

What was it all about? I had taken a Year 56 class one afternoon at that school more than a week ago. I had taught there only once before, and then a different year group. I could remember nothing in particular, apart from the class being uncooperative. I had sent some children out, one girl in tears. Too many kids in the corridor? Making a girl cry? At the back of my mind lurked a perverse thought that would not go away, that I had done something awful but for some reason couldn't remember what.

My meeting with Mr Edwards a day later was brief. I felt tense but calm. An allegation that I had sexually assaulted a child had been made against me, he said. The police had decided to investigate further. I now had an opportunity to say why I should not be suspended from the council's supply register.

All I could say was that I had not sexually abused anyone. Mr Edwards said it was now up to the police to contact me, though he had no idea when, or how long the investigation would take. Any claim for lost earnings would be "happily taken forward". A formal paragraph later, I was suspended. Now that it was all over for the moment, I felt curiously euphoric.

A senior education officer, let's call him Mr Smith, rang a week later to say he had asked all local schools to contact him if I approached them for work. He had not mentioned the word "suspension", but if schools wanted to know more, he would tell them "a little bit", though not the actual issue.

How disingenuous. As if schools would not know that something was seriously wrong. And what was worse, be left guessing as to what it was. I discovered later that he had also warned other local education authorities off me.

I had the mortgage to pay, but it proved virtually impossible to find work.

I could not teach or even register with employment agencies because heads were banned from giving me a reference. All I found was an afternoon on reception at a local car dealer's on the minimum wage. I was living on my last pay packet with no guarantee of another.

Several days later, the police rang to arrange an interview for the following morning. It was a nerve-wracking event. I had already been warned by my National Union of Teachers' solicitor that I could be arrested. I could then be photographed, fingerprinted and have a DNA swab taken - details the police can keep indefinitely.

But the officers confirmed I was attending voluntarily, and I finally discovered why I was there: a 10-year-old girl - they gave me her name, but I could not put a definite face to it - had told a youth worker the day after the alleged incident that during lessons I had pushed her in the stomach with my hand to force her to sit down, and at the end of the day she had returned to the classroom to pick up her jumper and I had grasped her bottom.

I was cautioned and asked for an account of the afternoon. Then they questioned me extensively. Had I pushed the girl in the stomach? No, that was unacceptable. Had I - looking me full in the face - grasped the girl's bottom? No.

When it finished, an officer told me he thought they would not be proceeding with the case, that it might be resolved by the following week.

This was good to hear. I left the police station with a now-familiar feeling of post-traumatic euphoria.

But why had the girl accused me? In a word, resentment. I think she knew the girl I had sent out in tears for interfering in a dispute. I had refused to let her comfort the friend, and later taken a task off her because she was ignoring instructions, and given it to someone else. Small things? Not to a 10-year-old.

I heard nothing from the police before Christmas, and finally got through to them just before New Year. They apologised, saying I should have received a letter telling me they were taking no further action. The council already knew. The girl's allegations had been "unsubstantiated" due to "contradictions" in her account. I felt relieved, but not celebratory.

There was still the matter of my pay claim. Mr Edwards was still "looking into" it, arguing rather perversely that I could only claim for the afternoon the alleged incident took place.

Next I spoke to Mr Smith. We needed to meet to lift the suspension, he said quickly. Good! And he wanted to talk about "a couple of things" that had arisen during his enquiries. What things? Issues concerning me that heads should have raised with the LEA before, said Mr Smith. They were not going to take it any further except to say: they knew. Mr Edwards would also be present.

I was angry that Mr Smith was happy to dovetail the lifting of my suspension with a possible warning about other, unrelated issues. It was as if it did not matter that a serious allegation such as sexual assault had been cast away. I was still guilty of something. I would leave the meeting feeling depressed, not relieved. My union representative arranged for Mr Smith to speak to me separately.

Lifting the suspension next day took seconds. Mr Edwards reiterated the police findings and told me I could work forthwith. Schools were being notified. He then withdrew and I was left with Mr Smith. His "concerns"

dated back over the past four years.

A few were things I should not have done, such as dragging a pupil by the hand down to the head's office; others were plain silly. "You called a boy an idiot". I think I had, or had I said he was behaving like an idiot, or warned him not to be an idiot? I could not quite remember. Regardless, was he seriously saying that to call a boy an idiot was not something a headteacher could handle, and that the council's child protection officer had to be notified? Yes, said Mr Smith.

Many of his summaries were inaccurate, others entirely new and unrecognisable. My responses were noted down: yes, I did compliment a girl on her top one mufti day. No, I had not habitually referred to children as "mate". Mr Smith said that a reminder would shortly be sent to schools asking them to notify the LEA of any concerns regarding supply teachers. I wondered if heads would also be asked to detail all anecdotal instances of "inappropriate" behaviour among permanent staff throughout their career.

Somehow I doubted it.

I am now back teaching. A couple of schools have not used me since. It is easy for a school secretary ringing around to leapfrog a name on her supply list that arouses suspicion. A head may even have ordered it. A head- teacher friend told me she would not use anyone linked to a sexual assault allegation.

To my relief, the council eventually agreed to reimburse me for all lost earnings during my suspension.

I would like to say it's over, but it's not. I have just received police files on me under the Data Protection Act. Included are the words "Local warning: Paedophile".

For the first time in this whole sorry episode I became truly angry and then depressed. Now I wanted to contact my accuser and ask her what the hell she thought she was doing. The police say they use the tag "paedophile" as a convenient key word to bring up sexual assault allegations on their computer database.

I say this is grossly inaccurate and offensive. They have agreed to try to find more "appropriate" wording. But for now the tag remains. Being classed as a potential threat to children - even secretly - constrains your relationship with them. You are in danger of becoming morbidly self-conscious, unable to deal with pupils in a normal, natural way.

And it is an unwanted reminder of something I had almost forgotten: that everything I have gone through stems from upsetting a young girl.

All names have been changed. Copyright: Nick Southgate

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