Education: When innocent touches put a teacher at risk

Accusations of assault against men in charge of children are on the increase.
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The Independent Online
When seven-year-old Harry tumbled over in the playground and grazed his knee, the teacher on duty patched it with a plaster and banished the tears with a comforting hug. The incident went unnoticed and the day continued as normal at the primary school.

The teacher happened to be a woman. Had the teacher been male, however, the outcome might have been very different. Although they do the same job, male teachers are far more at risk of having an action such as a reassuring pat on the shoulder misconstrued. A growing number of male teachers are being accused by pupils of sexual or physical assault. An accusation, even if later it proves to be total fabrication, may wreck the teacher's career.

The idea of falsely accusing a teacher of abuse would have been virtually unthinkable 20 years ago, but nowadays it is a growing problem, according to the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT). "The number of situations where litigation becomes a possibility is increasing," says Chris Purser, the NAHT's assistant secretary for professional advice.

Surprisingly, unions and government bodies have virtually no statistics. The Department for Education holds figures only for teachers barred from teaching after being found guilty in the courts of a variety of offences, but it doesn't record malicious accusations. Union figures, where they exist, cover only cases where the police have been involved and the union has provided a solicitor. There are no figures reflecting the large number of accusations that are dealt with inside schools and where no action is taken.

So why the increase? Some blame media coverage of child abuse issues, which has fostered an atmosphere of distrust of adults in charge of children, particularly men. Some blame the poor image of teachers. Others argue that the 1989 Children's Act, while rightly protecting children, has given them unprecedented powers which they can and do abuse.

Sometimes an accusation is motivated by a pupil's grudge against a teacher or against authority. "Children are more streetwise than ever. There are numerous examples where, if in trouble, a child will try to divert attention by making false allegations against a teacher," says Ron Owen, who is a regional NASUWT representative.

In other cases, a child simply misconstrues what was in fact an innocent gesture. "If the action is unwanted by the child, it's technically assault, even if the teacher meant well," Owen says. However, if the accusation is later found to be fabrication, action is rarely taken against the child.

Despite constituting a tiny minority in the primary school sector - fewer than two out of 10 teachers are men - males are far more likely to be accused than females. The NASUWT estimates that at least 80 per cent of accusations are against males. Ted Wragg, the professor of education at Exeter University, says: "Men are in a far more difficult situation than women because there's been so much publicity about men and child abuse." Often, actions which are seen as normal when carried out by a female teacher, such as taking a child on to the knee, are seen as suspect when done by a male.

Experts say that this reflects society's confusion over male roles and equality between the sexes. We want them to be involved in bringing up their own children, but when they care for ours, we don't fully trust them.

We pay lip-service, for example, to the idea of male midwives and male nannies, but many of us balk when it comes to choosing a male to care for our own children.

Perhaps many people also find it difficult to accept the idea of male teachers caring for small children in the classroom. We tend, also, to feel more comfortable when seeing them as authority figures, as is shown by the fact that, when it comes to the issue of primary school headships, the male/ female ratio evens out to about 50-50.

"There's a fundamental contradiction which we have to come to terms with," says John Howson, the visiting fellow of education at Oxford Brookes University and a former trainer of primary teachers. "We are saying that fathers can [play a full role as] parents, but we don't accept them acting in loco parentis at school."

At primary level, teachers are seen by many children as substitute parents. Many children even call their teacher "mum" or "dad" and look to them for much-needed affection or reassurance. For children from single-parent families a male teacher may be the only male role model they know.

The problem is that acting in loco parentis inevitably means touching children. If a child is distressed, we expect a teacher to comfort with a hug. Children touch teachers, too, as they would their parents. They may stroke a teacher's arm or leg while he or she is reading or give them a cuddle.

The teacher, particularly a male teacher, is in an impossible situation. "If they do their job as society expects them to, including fulfilling a caring role, they risk having accusations of inappropriate physical assault being made," says Ron Owen.

The result is that most unions are forced to advise teachers not to touch or be alone with a child under any circumstances. "With young children there's an automatic wish to respond to children who are hurt or upset," says Olwyn Gunn, the NASUWT's equal opportunities officer. "We have to advise our members not to place themselves in a situation where there is any physical contact, as this might be misconstrued. If a teacher decides to comfort a child, they must be aware of the implications. It's a very sad state of affairs."

It's a sad state of affairs not least of all for the children. "As part of children's development they need reassurance and signs of love, affection and respect, and that includes physical contact," says Professor Sheila Wolfendale, who is an educational psychologist at the University of East London. "If touching is seen as taboo, the teacher can be seen as a remote pedagogue."

Many teachers feel that they have no option but to follow union advice to protect their jobs. This may mean exercising caution in even the most trivial of activities, such as avoiding touching a child's hand when showing them how to write or use a computer mouse. Last year the Local Government Association advised teachers not to apply sun cream to pupils in case they were accused of child abuse.

Showering, gymnastics, swimming and changing for sports are all potentially dangerous areas, even though they don't involve direct touching. One NAHT member, for example, was accused of sexual assault after he took photographs of some of his male pupils in swimming trunks during a residential course. Of course, it can be almost impossible to teach gym or swimming effectively without touching a child, but the risks for the teacher are high.

Being accused of assault can be devastating for the teacher. Once accused, the teacher is usually suspended, though he may not be told why. Supposedly a neutral act, suspension inevitably brings with it stigma and suspicion. For teachers living in a small community the pressures can be unbearable.

"In my village I'm known as the local teacher," says one male teacher who was suspended for 14 months on charges of "inappropriate physical contact". "After seeing me around a lot at home you got the obvious questions. `Off work again? ... More holidays?' They knew that something was up. Eventually you run out of excuses for being seen."

This teacher returned to his original school after being cleared. Many others are not so lucky and have their confidence and relationships wrecked, suffer nervous breakdowns or are dismissed from their jobs, even after being found innocent in the courts.

The Government is calling for more male primary teachers to even out the huge imbalance, but is it aware of the pressures they will be under if they do join? If so, what measures is it taking to ease them? Are we getting to the age of video cameras in classrooms?

The NASUWT is currently setting up systems to monitor the problem nationally. But, most important, say union officials, is a change in procedures so that teachers are no longer automatically suspended. Under the present system teachers are presumed guilty until found innocent, they say. Guidelines on physical restraint were clarified last year; perhaps guidelines on comforting should also be scrutinised. And children who offend need support and treatment.

In fact, teachers are now more vulnerable than ever before. John Howson says: "It would be a shame if the problems facing male teachers turned primary education into an all-female profession."


LAST AUTUMN, James, a 45-year-old primary teacher in Yorkshire, was told that his class of 10-year-olds would be going on a residential week in the Peak District. Among the activities the children would be doing were two of James's favourites, climbing and canoeing. But after much soul-searching he told his headteacher that he wouldn't be able to go. He spent the week preparing the following week's lessons and catching up on a backlog of maths marking.

For James, the dangers of accompanying his class were too great to risk putting his career on the line. Although none of the female teachers had faced accusations of sexual assault at his primary school, two out of the four male teachers had, and James had no wish to follow suit.

One teacher, Andrew, had been accused by three 11-year-old girls. This happily married man, himself the father of two university-aged children, had been supervising a mixed class for games. The girls were wasting time changing, so Andrew looked through the glass windows into the classroom to see whether they were getting a move on. There were no female staff around to help him. The girls accused him of being a "peeping Tom", and both they and Andrew were suspended for two weeks. The police got involved, but no charges were made. Andrew and the girls returned to work, and Andrew had to teach them for the rest of the school year.

When, a few months later, another male teacher, Peter, was accused of assault, Andrew couldn't stand it any more and took a year's sabbatical. He's now supporting himself doing casual DIY jobs for friends. James believes that Andrew's and Peter's cases were linked. The children had realised the power they had to get rid of a teacher. He wasn't going to let them do it to him.

With three children of his own to support, James could not risk being in close proximity to his class for five days and nights. The nights were the most problematic; he knew that he would have to supervise both boys and girls changing into their nightclothes and check the dormitories at night. A few with difficult backgrounds were known to wet their beds, and he'd have to comfort them and clean up. As all the teachers would be stretched to the limit, there would be no chance of ensuring that another member of staff was around.

During the day there would be physical activities, such as climbing and canoeing. James knew that both were potentially problematic: his colleague Peter had been accused of sexual abuse when he hauled a nine-year-old girl out of the water by her waist after she had capsized her canoe. For climbing he'd have to help the children put on harnesses, involving thigh and waist straps. When they struggled, he'd need to give them a helping shove from behind, which would mean placing his hand on their buttocks. It simply wasn't worth the risk.

James is determined not to let his colleagues' experiences put him off a career to which he is strongly committed. But he feels he is being forced to choose between protecting the children's interests and his own. It's an impossible choice.

Names of teachers and locations have been changed to protect teachers' identities