It’s surely every teacher’s worst nightmare – becoming the victim of a pupil’s false accusation.
Teachers were judged to be so vulnerable to such allegations that in 2011 the government passed a law giving them automatic anonymity when accused of committing criminal offences against children, unless they are charged by police.
But the legislation has not come close to making the issue of false accusations go away. Unions warn that schools still have a “knee-jerk” response and suspend teachers as soon as claims are made.
The lack of information given to teachers about allegations is also a major area of concern – individuals can find themselves in a Kafkaesque world where they don’t even know what they’ve been accused of.
Meanwhile, a whole class of vulnerable education staff – teaching assistants – doesn’t even have the same right to anonymity now given to teacher colleagues.
A poll by the ATL teaching union in 2015 revealed the sheer scale of the problem. More than a third (38 per cent) of school and college staff in the survey said that an employee in their institution had experienced a false allegation made by a pupil.
More than one in five (22 per cent) of those surveyed had themselves experienced a false allegation by a pupil during their career, and one in seven (14 per cent) by a pupil’s parent or family member.
While those figures are worrying, they don’t capture just how devastating such an accusation can be.
Horatio Goodden is someone who’s experienced it first-hand. In 2007, while working as a classroom assistant, he was the subject of an allegation of physical assault made by two pupils. “It goes to the very core of what you believe about yourself,” he says. “If you are innocent, to be accused, it attacks every sinew of your life.”
Criminal proceedings were dropped when a court ruled that there had been an abuse of process that would have denied Goodden a fair trial, although this didn’t stop him losing his job. His employer admitted liability to stop the case going to an employment tribunal, and he received some compensation.
However, Goodden says he still bears scars from the episode: “It’s a life-changing event … I suffer from the symptoms of post-traumatic stress.” The experience led him to get involved with Falsely Accused Carers and Teachers (FACT) – an organisation set up to support victims of wrongful allegations. In the 12 months to February 2016, FACT’s helpline received 508 calls, with 45 per cent of the new contacts being made by teachers, although Goodden says this is just the “tip of the iceberg”.
Testimony provided by teachers in the ATL survey reinforced how damaging false accusations can be. One primary teacher in a state school in Hertfordshire said: “It was established immediately that the allegation against me was false, but I felt that everyone was talking about me. I couldn’t sleep. I was afraid to be in the class. I couldn’t face doing my job. I ended up mentally ill over it.”
Another teacher described how her late husband was falsely accused by a child. “Though the Crown Prosecution Service held that there was no case to answer, he was a broken man. He returned to work briefly, but had lost his nerve. The false allegation of one child wrecked our family life. My husband died of a sudden heart attack in his fifties.”
“The fallout is absolutely massive,” agrees Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union. She says some falsely accused teachers have seen their own children removed by social services, and in one instance a teacher who was in the process of adopting a child was stopped from doing so.
What is an inherently stressful situation is often compounded by schools mishandling allegations against a teacher.
The Department for Education’s statutory safeguarding guidance – Keeping Children Safe in Education – makes it clear that “suspension should not be an automatic response when an allegation is reported”.
However, Sharon Liburd, an NEU teaching union solicitor who has assisted many teachers dealing with accusations, says: “In our experience, it tends to be quite automatic”. This “knee-jerk” response often leaves teachers feeling “isolated”, she says.
“The letter of suspension always says it’s a neutral act … but when you’re told to collect your belongings, your computer is closed down, and you’re told not to contact pupils or staff, it does feel that the odds are against you.”
With suspension lasting “sometimes months, even up to a year”, teachers often “sink into depression”, Liburd says.
Teachers not informed
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of suspension is the fact that teachers frequently receive little or no information about who has made the accusation, where and when the improper conduct is supposed to have taken place, or even what they are alleged to have done. In some cases, this may be warranted – the allegations are so serious that it would not be appropriate to inform the teacher until the school has liaised with the police and the local authority designated officer.
However, Liburd says that this silence should not drag on indefinitely, pointing out that the DfE’s guidance makes it clear that individuals should be provided with “as much information as possible” and be given “a full opportunity to answer the allegation”.
“Sometimes people can’t even recall any incident,” she says.
So what’s the way forward for schools dealing with allegations? Everyone agrees that protecting children is the number one priority and that if a pupil makes an allegation it has to be investigated.
However, Keates says the procedures contained in Keeping Children Safe in Education “need to be clearer”, and that schools should always carry out a “preliminary investigation” before suspending a teacher.
Amanda Brown, an assistant general secretary at the NEU, believes the most important thing is raising the confidence of schools to handle these tricky scenarios. “Obviously there could be more guidance, but really it’s about ensuring that schools are really confident and robust about the way that they deal with things, both making sure that investigations happen well and promptly, but also that they happen fairly,” she says.