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False accusations

magazine article | Published in TES Newspaper on 20 February, 2004

Did you know?

* In the past 12 years there have been more than 1,800 allegations against teachers of physical and sexual abuse. The number is increasing:44 in 1991 compared with 183 last year

* Two hundred of the 1,800 resulted in a court case, with 73 convictions

* The NASUWT is campaigning for teachers accused of abuse to remain anonymous

* But the NSPCC says anonymity protects abusers.It says relatively few children make false allegations

* Following the Soham murder case, the Bichard inquiry will examine schools' vetting procedures and how police intelligence is handled.

Evidence, which will be taken in public for three weeks, began on February 16

It's every teacher's worst nightmare. A pupil alleges you've abused them and you've been arrested. No charges are laid, but you're suspended from work. Initially your colleagues are supportive, but you've been banned from keeping in touch. You're seen as guilty until proven innocent. "No smoke without fire," they say. Well, you're not alone: false accusations are increasing.

Changing climate

Figures released by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers show that over the past 12 years in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there have been more than 1,800 allegations of physical and sexual abuse against teachers. And the number is growing; 183 allegations in 2003 compared with 44 in 1991. Only 200 of those 1,800 made it to court; 73 were convicted. Of the 160 cases reported in 2002, 20 are still outstanding.

Teachers' and heads' associations talk of a climate in schools where children taken to task for ill-discipline will increasingly threaten to report teachers for abuse. Teachers are often named and shamed from the start and undergo a long drawn-out process - investigations and court proceedings can take two years - during which they are isolated from colleagues and their community. Moreover, the story does not end with affirmation of their innocence. If they go for other jobs, the allegations against them, "charges dropped" or "case dismissed", may appear as "soft" information on statutory police checks, the "enhanced disclosure" sent to schools via the local education authority from the Criminal Records Bureau.

It is this information which did not show up on Ian Huntley's disclosure when he applied to be caretaker at Soham Village college in Cambridgeshire. Huntley - convicted last December of murdering the schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman - was given the job even though he had a string of rape and under-age sex allegations in his past. Home Secretary David Blunkett immediately ordered an inquiry into vetting procedures, which started hearing evidence in public this week.

While teaching unions and heads are demanding, post-Soham, that support staff should be vetted by the "enhanced" method, they say teachers' careers are being ruined needlessly by "soft" information. And what head, especially now, would take the risk of employing anyone with such an allegation on their records? (See case study.)

To name or not to name?

The NASUWT has had a long-standing campaign to secure anonymity for teachers accused of abuse and has supported a private member's bill and amendments to the Sexual Offences Bill. But the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children roundly opposes any anonymity. David Coulter, its policy adviser on education, says that while he accepts that some teachers' lives are devastated by false allegations, anonymity protects real abusers. ChildLine records that of 13,650 calls about physical abuse in 2002-03, 126 said that a teacher was responsible. Of the 8,540 children who called about sexual abuse, 411 said a teacher was responsible.

Why the increase in accusations?

Teachers' unions and heads' associations say it's because children, generally those with behavioural problems, know that such claims can cause maximum pain and disruption for a teacher. "Children making allegations should be listened to," says Chris Keates, deputy general secretary of the NASUWT. "In principle, we have no problem with that. In the past they weren't listened to because they were children. But now it is likely to lead to a full-blown investigation." She believes the Children Act of 1989, though necessary, has created a climate "where an allegation in itself is being seen as proof of guilt. The pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction." She says police should be mindful that pupils do make false allegations. They should also be mindful that most teachers, at some time, will come into conflict with children. "Often when teachers break up a fight, they get into physical contact and this can lead to allegations.

These days, parents are much more likely to go to the police or social services rather than the school."

The NSPCC says relatively few children make false allegations, and the tiny fraction of teachers who are falsely accused has to be placed against the fact that frightening numbers of children in this country suffer criminal abuse. And although 95 per cent of abuse takes place in the family, teachers can also be abusers and some work in schools to gain access to children.

Police methods of pursuing investigations and particularly "trawling" - where other children taught by that teacher at the time of the alleged offence are interviewed - have been blamed for upholding cases that have no foundation, and which are subsequently quashed in court. Campaign group Falsely Accused Carers and Teachers (FACT) is fighting to get many convictions overturned. The Criminal Cases Review Commission and the Historical Abuse Appeal Panel have set up a wide-ranging inquiry on this issue. There are fears that some alleged victims made false claims in the hope of compensation and that these were followed up too enthusiastically by the police seeking corroboration by volume - lumping a large number of cases together to produce a narrative which fits their case.

On what basis do police and local education authorities conduct investigations?

If the allegation is one of more than common assault, the police will ask the teacher to come in for interview and then arrest them, or they will go out and arrest them. It can take months before charges are brought; the teacher is usually on police bail. Teachers may be instructed by police not to approach colleagues or parents, as they may be potential witnesses. If no further action is taken, teachers may then face a further inquiry from the school and LEA before being allowed back in the classroom.

Cases with only verbal evidence - the pupil's word against the teacher's - are notoriously difficult. The Government has appointed area co-ordinators to act between agencies to speed things up. Investigations might be carried out by social services or the NSPCC under local child protection procedures, or by the police where criminal acts have been implicated. The NASUWT last year started a specialist face-to-face counselling service for members who have had allegations made against them, because some find it extremely hard to return to work. Mary Howard, NASUWT assistant secretary, legal and benevolent, says: "They are often in a double jeopardy. Having gone through a criminal investigation, they may then have to face a lengthy internal disciplinary procedure before they are deemed safe to return to school. We are trying to stem the loss of people to the profession." New child protection guidance from the Government is due in June; the DfES says one reason for its revision is because of the growing numbers of false allegations against teachers.

What goes on innocent teachers' records?

Any teacher offered a new post in a different school must undergo background checks for criminal convictions. The Criminal Records Bureau offers two levels of check; standard and enhanced. Standard involves a search of national police records, Department of Health lists and DfES list 99 (people unsuitable to work with children). An enhanced check incorporates all the standard level searches and, in addition, a search of local police records. All people who have unsupervised contact with children have to have an enhanced check, but if it's supervised contact - such as caretakers - then an enhanced check is at the discretion of the headteacher. The issue at the heart of the Soham case, which has prompted the independent inquiry into vetting procedures led by Sir Michael Bichard, former permanent secretary at the DfES, is that Ian Huntley was given only a standard check, even though as a caretaker he would be in daily contact with children. A string of allegations against him was not passed on by Humberside police for fear of falling foul of the Data Protection Act. Sir Michael's prime focus is to look at how information or intelligence is revealed, retained, used, stored and deleted within the framework established by this legislation. His report is due in the summer.

Many feel the current system relies too heavily on the discretion of local police forces about the level of non-conviction or "soft" information to disclose. Teacher unions say that failure to disclose information, as with Huntley, is highly unusual. Frequently, they argue, CRB disclosures for teachers reveal information that should not have been disclosed - or held at all. For example, the NASUWT is seeking a judicial review for a teacher who lost a job offer when disclosure revealed that local police records contained a complaint from a neighbour about him walking around naked in his third-floor flat.

What happens now?

Existing guidance sets out that disclosure should only be made:

* if there is pressing need;

* as the exception not the rule, given the potential consequences for individuals; and

* that the chief police officer should be directly responsible for the decision to release information for enhanced disclosures; and

* that the need to protect the child should be balanced against the need to safeguard the rights of the individual.

Teachers and heads say this is not being done. The NAHT wants clear procedures to determine what non-conviction information is released in enhanced disclosures. In its evidence to the Bichard inquiry, it draws a distinction between "one-off" allegations and a pattern of alleged behaviour "which was a feature of the Huntley case".

The Home Office, in the face of substantial criticism about delays, boasts that the CRB, set up in 2002, is offering improved protection for children and vulnerable adults because "one in five organisations that used the service has declined to employ someone as a result of a disclosure". What this does not reveal, says the NAHT, is whether applicants were denied employment appropriately.

What effect can "soft" information have on a teacher's job prospects?

CRB disclosures can mean offers are withdrawn, even after the teacher has started at the new post. Sometimes, according to the NASUWT, police reveal information that has come out of an investigation, but has not been tried and tested in the courts. Soft information such as this can be contained on the face of a disclosure, but can also be revealed as additional information in a separate document. Teaching unions believe that police officers sometimes reveal this as a way of "getting two bites at the cherry" if they disagree with the court's decision. (The NUT claims that one member who could not get a job in teaching because of disclosures of false allegations of abuse made against him finally joined the Metropolitan Police.)

Heads acknowledge that there is real conflict between the interests of the school and the desire for maximum information in order to protect children, and the rights of individual teachers to data protection and privacy. David Hart, general secretary of the NAHT, says heads will always err on the side of caution if they are informed that allegations have been made, even if that teacher has been found innocent. "You look at the way information is worded from the police and you read between the lines."

What legal recourse can teachers have?

Not a lot. A union may be able to persuade a police force to drop soft information if it can be proven under the Data Protection Act that it is inaccurate or inflammatory. In a watertight case, a union or association may be able to press for judicial review in the High Court but this is expensive and almost never qualifies for legal aid. "We would not encourage legal action unless we had strong, strong grounds for it," says David Hart.

The NASUWT in Wales has called for teachers to be able to sue the parents of children who make false allegations for compensation. Patrick Andrews, a partner in the firm of Andrews Angel solicitors, which acts for members of trade unions in the caring and teaching professions, says that "given the right kind of case", his firm may seek justice in the European courts for which clients can apply for a form of legal aid. He is keen to test out Article 8 Schedule 1 of the European Convention which came into force in 2000 and which gives everybody the right to privacy. "It is a form of discrimination, because by virtue of being accused they (teachers) no longer enjoy the same rights as everyone else."

How thoroughly are school staff trained on child protection issues?

Child protection training for teachers is patchy. The NSPCC, which is soon to launch a campaign for improved training in schools, says that although more than half of all teachers become involved in child protection cases in their first 18 months of teaching, many have no training in spotting child abuse. The average length of training for those who had, was just two to three hours. It is statutory to have a designated teacher responsible for child protection in every school, but the NSPCC argues that all teachers need specialist training. The Government Green Paper "Every Child Matters" places a new duty of care on schools. Colin Turner, head of the NSPCC specialist investigations service, says the agency wants a designated senior manager, free of teaching responsibilities, in every school for protecting the welfare of all children. It also wants independent counsellors in every school for children to talk to.

David Coulter, of the society, says robust child protection policies ensure a culture of safety for pupils and teachers. Teachers will then know to act, he says. They will know that a child making false allegations is probably troubled by other trauma in their life, they will know how to act if allegations are made; they will know how to whistle-blow if they are concerned about the behaviour of colleagues towards pupils; they will know what is inappropriate physical contact.

How can teachers prevent false allegations being made?

They must record and report if they have any concerns about a child's attitudes towards them; if, for instance, the child is being flirtatious or verbally or physically aggressive. They then have evidence of a history of behaviour if an allegation is made later. They should avoid taking children in their cars alone and if a one-to-one conversation with a pupil is needed, colleagues should be aware of this, with the door kept open. Never contact a child outside school without someone knowing, and, if a pupil needs to be restrained, make sure there are witnesses.

See Raj Persaud, page 20

Resources

* Enough is Enough. Advice and resources on dealing with violence, abuse and harassment. NASUWT CD-Rom, part of a joint NASUWT/SHA framework for schools on Behaviour Management. Contact NASUWT: 0121 453 6150. SHA: 0116 299 1122.

* Joint NEOST (National Employers' Organisation for Schoolteachers)/teacher union guidance on education staff and child protection. "Staff facing allegations of abuse - guidelines on practice and procedures" at www.lg-employers.gov.uk

* Andrews Angel. Tel: 020 8911 9289; patrickandrews@andrewsangel.co.uk


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