Sticks and stones

Malicious allegations of abuse by school children can ruin, or even end, teachers' lives. Hilary Wilce looks at a growing problem - and potential solutions
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The Independent Online

Last summer, Alastair Wilbee, an Isle of Wight primary school head, disappeared the night before allegations that he had sexually abused a pupil were due to appear in his local paper. He was later found hanged.

Last summer, Alastair Wilbee, an Isle of Wight primary school head, disappeared the night before allegations that he had sexually abused a pupil were due to appear in his local paper. He was later found hanged.

Now his union, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), is calling urgently for anonymity to be granted to those suspected of sex crimes while investigations are carried out.

Its voice joins a long-standing campaign by teaching unions for changes in the way that teachers who are accused by pupils of abuse are treated. Teachers' unions say the pendulum of belief is tipped much too far in favour of pupils. They emphasise that the overwhelming majority of these cases never come to court, and that many are clearly shown to be malicious and unfounded, but that the public humiliation of being accused can lead to illness, unemployment, divorce and breakdown. And, they point out, the problem is increasingly turning young, or would-be, teachers away from the profession.

"No one is saying the investigation shouldn't be there," says David Mewes, the head of Holbury Junior School in Southampton, who helped to bring the motion before the NAHT's annual conference, "but as things stand, if the allegations are unfounded, people's careers - their lives - are ruined. The coroner in this case actually said that he thought everyone accused of sexual offences should remain anonymous until conviction."

Wilbee, 47, always vehemently denied the charges, and colleagues say that the alleged circumstances of the assault made it seem highly improbable. But he clearly knew what hundreds of teachers have found out to their cost - that any charge of sexual abuse is mud that sticks.

In fact, teachers and classroom assistants increasingly dread malicious allegations against them, and are taking more and more care never to be alone with a pupil - or in any other compromising situation. Today's pupils are sophisticated and knowing. They are well aware of their power to "get back" at teachers by voicing allegations of physical or sexual abuse, and increasing numbers of them do so, often telling teachers outright: "If you try and make me do that, I'll say you hit me and make you lose your job." Others have made copycat allegations after the issue has come up in a television soap.

"They know the law, and they don't hesitate to tell you they know their rights," says Sam Bechler, the Wolverhampton branch secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, who believes there must be some deterrence for would-be accusers. "A small number of parents even coach their children on what to do and how to behave. We live in a compensation culture, and they're after money. The received wisdom is that children must be believed, but the fact is children do lie. They lie as soon as they learn to speak. And some make vexatious and malicious allegations."

In one case, three pupils got together in the holidays to hatch a plot against a teacher, who then suffered nine months of drawn-out investigation into their allegation of sexual abuse before his trial exposed what they had done. In another, a teacher was accused of abuse in school on a day when it turned out he was actually in hospital.

The problem is growing. Figures from the teacher union, the NASUWT, which has for years led the campaign on this issue, show that last year there were 183 allegations against members, more than four times the number 12 years ago. More than 1,800 claims of abuse have been made by children against its members over the past 12 years - only 200 of which made it to court, and only 73 of which led to conviction.

Teachers accused of anything more than common assault will usually be arrested and then let out on bail, but are often forbidden to contact colleagues who may be witnesses. Allegations are investigated under the Children's Act, but there is nothing to stop the press publishing allegations and identifying the teacher. Even if the police take things no further, there may then be an internal school- or local-authority inquiry. And even when a teacher is completely cleared, parents will often campaign against them returning to the classroom, and unproven charges can show up in background checks by future employers. The consequences can be catastrophic. In one case, a young, married primary-school teacher had a nervous breakdown and resigned from his job after being accused of sexual assault, even though an investigation exonerated him.

"It is very, very important that the public recognise that many teachers are falsely accused and have their lives ruined as a result," says Gail Saunders, of the campaign group Falsely Accused Parents and Teachers, which deals mainly with historical cases but has a "steady trickle" of teachers seeking help. And the Teacher Support Network, an educational charity, says 124 teachers phoned it in 2002/3 about this issue, often distressed and in tears. "If the school decides there is a need for a teacher to be suspended, the teacher won't necessarily know what the allegation is, nor are they supposed to contact any member of staff at the school except the one named person who is their contact. So they feel isolated, vulnerable and guilty, and think to themselves over and over, 'What did I do? What could I possibly have done?' " says Tom Lewis, the information services manager. "Yet the answer is probably 'nothing'."

Teachers' unions are pressing for a raft of measures to even out the balance between accuser and accused. They want anonymity for the accused until charged or convicted of an offence, for investigations to be concluded more quickly (they can drag on for several years), and for the accused to be able to know what the accusations are and to be allowed to answer them.

Some would go further. As things stand, there is no way of having allegations publicly declared malicious. Nor is there any deterrence for future accusers.

A resolution passed at this year's NASUWT conference called for the right to sue parents or children who make malicious allegations. It also heard that a court in America had ruled that a pupil should pay compensation out of future earnings for making false allegations. And some local education authorities are said to be "itching" for a similar case to be brought here.

However, children's groups have come out vehemently against anything that would make it harder for a child to speak up about abuse, saying the number of false allegations is tiny compared to the number of real situations that must be brought to light. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children's head of policy and public affairs, Liz Atkins, says: "Allegations that a professional has maltreated a child or put a child at risk must always be taken seriously. A raft of measures can be introduced to schools and other settings to help reduce the risk of false allegations, including guidelines covering one-to-one meetings and what constitutes inappropriate behaviour towards a child."

And even if it transpires that a child is making a false allegation, she points out, this could be a cry for help or a reflection of their own hidden problems.

It is a supremely difficult area. Teachers are unhappy that a charge of abuse may stay on their record even if it is dropped. But it could save lives: had the previous allegations against Ian Huntley been known when he applied for the job of caretaker at Soham Village College, then Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman might still be alive today. The Bichard Inquiry is investigating vetting procedures in the light of this tragedy.

Teachers' unions understand these difficulties well. "This is not about protecting child abusers or returning them to the profession. It's about people being treated fairly and justly, and not having a charge of abuse being seen as an indication of guilt," says Chris Keates, the deputy general secretary of the NASUWT.

Her union has campaigned for legislative change and is hopeful that some progress may be made. Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, has made a commitment to look at the issues, and DfES officials are in discussion with the union about ways forward. "This is by far the most positive response we've had in all the years we've campaigned on this," says Keates, "and a real tribute to a good and open working relationship with Government in an atmosphere of social partnership."

However, Clarke has indicated that he does not necessarily see legislative change as necessary, so it remains to be seen what exactly he can come up with as a solution to this serious - and growing - problem.

ACCUSED: A TEACHER'S TALE

Trainee teacher Jonathan Dunning-Davies was this spring acquitted by a Hull crown-court jury of sexual abuse after a year-long investigation. Following the case, he said that credulity towards students' false allegations was making it impossible for teachers to do their jobs.

He had been accused by a 15-year-old pupil of fondling her breast after an unruly class where foul language had been a problem, but the court was told the evidence against him was dubious and inconsistent. Among the inconsistencies was a pupil's false claim that no other teacher had been in the classroom at the time.

Judge Stuart Brown QC criticised the quality of the evidence, saying: "Teachers live in an excessively power-to-the-pupil environment. The Government and members of the public need to be made aware of this growing problem in schools, where one day there will be no more teachers because the word of every child is valued over and beyond that of everyone else."

After the case, Dunning-Davies, 25, whose mother and grandfather had been teachers, said the case had cost him a year's life and salary, had taken him from the classroom to driving a van, and put him off teaching for good. HW

education@independent.co.uk

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