When Penny drops what's a head to do?

Kate Myers

The furore over the Big Brother teacher has highlighted dilemmas over school sexual mores, says Kate Myers

exual behaviour may not have changed greatly over the years, but what is considered to be acceptable sexual behaviour changes. These issues can pose particular dilemmas for school leaders.

Attitudes have changed with regard to live-in partners, unmarriedsole parents and homosexuality. Experienced headteachers may find themselves dealing very differently now than they would have done at the beginning of their career with staff "living together"; with staff who are unmarried parents or who are openly gay or lesbian.

Should heads "keep up with the times" or should values be constant? Do we expect heads of religious schools to behave differently? How should all heads deal with sexual issues in an ever-changing context?

Not long ago (and still in some religious schools and some parts of the UK) sexual behaviour between unmarried adults was considered immoral. The discovery of such behaviour would be deemed a matter for the head to address. Women staff would be asked to leave if they had a child outside marriage. Indeed until recent times women teachers were not officially allowed to have sex at all. If they did so when unmarried they were "immoral" and if they got married they had to leave the profession. The marriage bar was not lifted until 1944.

These days it is not always clear-cut when teachers' sexual behaviour should become any concern of the head. Heterosexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals, transsexuals, and transvestites - any of whom could be practising or celibate, will be found in teaching. Most of the time their sexuality and sexual behaviour will have nothing to do with the institution in which they work. If a community expects its teachers to be examples and upholders of moral virtues there are obvious tensions if they then become involved in sexual behaviours that are deemed unacceptable and inappropriate. This raises the issue of determining what is inappropriate. As the head whose teacher was in Big Brother had to consider before the problem was taken out of her hands when Penny resigned. Some issues seem to clearly fall into the category of intervention, for example a member of staff - whatever the context - having a sexual relationship with a pupil in their care, is generally regarded to be wrong.

Even here there may be different reactions to a young member of staff having a consensual relationship with an 18-year-old and to a member of staff molesting an eight-year-old.

Consensual sexual relations between adults in the school can also pose problems for school leaders. It is said that most adults meet their partners at work. If two members of staff start dating it could be argued that this is no one's business but theirs. The situation may get more complex though if one or both of the teachers are married to someone else (or deemed to be "attached"); a teacher embarks on an affair with a married parent or governor; a parent or governor has an affair with a married teacher.

Some would argue that because of possible repercussions for the school all these scenarios could be considered the head's business. Even if both adults are "available" it could be that the relationship is not consensual and that one person is pursuing the other without their feelings being reciprocated. When issues of power are involved, for example an older andor more senior member of staff pursues a younger one, it is not too difficult to see the possibility of sexual harassment.

None of these scenarios is restricted to heterosexuals and all could be between gay men or between lesbians. Sexual stereotyping based on race makes these issues even more complicated. Heads may also have to deal with the consequences of a member of staff being "outed"; wanting to change sex; wanting to dress like a member of the opposite sex. And of course there are many more such dilemmas concerning relations between staff and pupils and between pupils.

Heads are now publicly accountable. How they react to changed attitudes and how they interpret these changes in their school are open to scrutiny (and in some cases possible legal action). They need to be confident and equipped to deal with these issues as and when they arise. We need to discuss whether it is possible and indeed desirable to try to build consensus on these matters within schools and within communities. If it is, the next question will be is it possible for this consensus to be flexible to attitude changes? Opening up this discussion during professional development may be a way forward.

Kate Myers is visiting professor at Homerton College, Cambridge

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Kate Myers

Latest stories