Leading Article: An `educative' event - but will the lesson be learned?

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The Independent Culture
A SEXUAL relationship between a teacher and a 16- or 17-year-old pupil can indeed be "educative" for all concerned, as Chris Woodhead, the Chief Schools Inspector, said. It can be educative in the sense that both bank and burglar can learn something from a robbery. If that were all he had meant, of course, he would not be in so much trouble, and the story would not have been on the front page of this newspaper last Saturday.

What he meant was that something positive could come out of such relationships, and it was on this that he was forced to go back yesterday. Which was inevitable, because the man in charge of maintaining standards of teaching should not, as a matter of policy, express anything other than prim disapproval of teacher-pupil relationships.

But, though it is for others to say it, what he said remains true. Of course, sex with pupils under the age of 16 is both wrong and a criminal offence, and Mr Woodhead prefaced his controversial words by saying so. As for sex with pupils aged 16 or 17, he said that adults "have a responsibility to those who are younger than us and therefore it isn't a good idea at all". He should have gone further, and said that the presumption must be that it is a sacking offence. But he was quite right to suggest that each case should be judged individually, and that an erring teacher should not be "automatically drummed out of the profession".

In this, and, despite his disclaimer that he had "no problem" with the Government's Bill to ban sex between teachers and pupils, his explosive comments perform a valuable service by drawing attention to a bad law in the making. The Sexual Offences Bill received its second reading in the House of Commons a week ago. In response to a spasm of anti-gay prejudice against the equal age of consent for homosexual men, the Home Secretary foolishly introduced provisions against the "abuse of trust" in cases where older people have responsibility for 16- or 17-year-olds, whether of the same or the opposite sex. These would make it a criminal offence for someone in a position of authority to have sex with a young person in their care in four cases: youth detention centres, local authority care, nursing care and full-time education.

In this, Jack Straw is going too far. As his former Home Office minister, Alun Michael, pointed out last year, it would mean it was lawful for teachers to marry their pupils but not to have sex with them. The Liberal Democrats should be congratulated for standing up for liberal values. In the Commons last week only Alan Beith and Evan Harris raised doubts, pointing out for example that the Bill will not criminalise doctor-patient relationships, quite sensibly leaving these to disciplinary proceedings.

Mr Woodhead is guilty, therefore, of an error of judgement. And his attempt to wriggle out of what he said is unappealing. These were not "private" comments; they were addressed to 200 student teachers - precisely his target audience. But this is not a case like that of Glenn Hoddle. For one thing, this is a subject that raises a genuine question about his competence as head of Ofsted (and it is a subject upon which, incidentally, the Prime Minister should undoubtedly pronounce). But there is another crucial difference: Mr Woodhead, unlike Mr Hoddle, has done well at the job he is paid to do. Teaching unions do not like him because he said that 15,000 of their members were not good enough. Whether or not this was an under-estimate or an exaggeration, what really matters is his drive against what are usually described, simplistically, as "trendy" teaching methods. The reality is more complex, in that he has overseen a systematic approach to raising teaching standards, drawing on the best of both traditional and modern methods. He should be allowed to complete this welcome revolution, while in future pausing to think before he opens his mouth.