Student-teacher relationships: Don't stand so close to me

The pupils are hormonal, the teachers may only be a few years older. No wonder the line gets crossed. The new film Notes on a Scandal tells the story of an affair. Teacher Steve McCormack says the cases that come to court are just the tip of the iceberg

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Chemistry isn't confined to the science labs at school. The sexual variety is in the air in every classroom and down every corridor. How could it be otherwise, given the proximity, day in day out, of hundreds of teenagers, each one a hormone volcano ready to erupt, and their teachers, many still in their early twenties?

So the tale of a woman teacher falling for, and then falling into bed with, a pupil at her London school, should not be dismissed as far-fetched. The story told in Zoë Heller's novel Notes on a Scandal, the film of which is released on Friday, might depict the extreme and relatively rare end of the spectrum. But there are cases like this, and less serious liaisons are commonplace.

With about 200,000 teachers working with millions of teenagers in thousands of schools, the law of averages alone suggests that, every so often, there'll be an attraction that goes beyond a mutual desire to deepen understanding of simultaneous equations.

For two years up to 2004, I taught in mixed comprehensives, and since then I have worked as a supply teacher in London. I've seen numerous examples of school situations becoming sexually charged, fuelled by the ambivalence in the teacher-pupil dynamic.

On the one hand, teachers are encouraged to develop relationships of honesty and trust with their pupils. Colleagues seen chatting with kids in the playground are admired by their peers for going the extra mile to build on the more formal classroom relationship. I remember playing rounders on a Spanish beach with a dozen or so teenagers in swimming costumes during a school trip to Barcelona, and subsequently enjoying a much closer relationship with them back at school.

Some teachers, male and female, use harmless flirting techniques to lighten the atmosphere in a classroom. I've complimented a girl on a new haircut, for example; female colleagues aren't above an eyelid flutter to enlist the help of strong boys to carry heavy books. This can help win round difficult teenagers. But it is just these situations that can provide "cover" for a teacher in danger of crossing that thin dividing line and becoming too close, or that can lead a confused and immature teenager into thinking the teacher is up for something more intimate.

Shortly after I started teaching, a popular and accomplished female colleague in her early twenties became aware that she was lighting the fire of a sixth-form boy she taught. He'd been making it obvious for some time that he had a soft spot for her.

Then, out of the blue, things escalated. In the middle of a lesson, while she was teaching from the blackboard, he walked to the front of the room and stroked her long blonde hair. The other pupils looked on open-mouthed, while the teacher took in the physical proximity and audacity of this love-struck, unbalanced teenager. "I just froze, and told him to sit down," she recalls. "It really freaked me out."

In the same school, a male friend, thirtyish and "fit" in the eyes of older girls, for a few weeks found himself in a similar predicament. He was targeted by one particularly attractive 16-year-old, who in dress and demeanour fitted exactly the teenage seductress stereotype. Then, during a maths lesson, she walked to the front of the class and sat on his lap as he sat at his desk. Having cast off her blazer, she sat there, Lolita-like, practised pout in place, effectively daring him to manhandle her off his knees. There was no easy way out. Doing nothing meant she might just stay put. But if he tried to move her, exactly where would he position his hands? Fortunately for him, she left of her own accord. No harm was done, everyone aware that he'd been ambushed.

With 3,500 secondary schools in the country, we can safely take it that these sort of scenes are played out pretty frequently. A teacher with a weakness or a predatory instinct might be tempted to cross the line. I know of two cases where this has happened. In the first, one man made the rash decision, after attending a school-leavers' prom, to go to a party back at a girl pupil's house. Before you could say General Teaching Council he was seen snogging in the corner with one of the girls who'd be turning up for lessons the previous term. It didn't go any further and he survived his moment of minor madness, but everyone who heard about it knew he'd been stupid.

His behaviour may not have brought him within the scope of the law, which, in 2003 was changed to criminalise sexual relationships between teachers and pupils under the age of 18. The other case I heard about, though, from a friend in the West Country, is unequivocally in the crime category. Here, a woman teacher in her mid-twenties became emotionally entangled with a 17-year-old boy. At first, eyebrows were raised by colleagues who saw the pair talking to each other more frequently than would have been expected. But their acute antennae soon picked up that the relationship was about to lurch into dangerous territory. The boy began visiting the woman at her home when she was alone in the evenings. The line had been crossed.

When it emerged the relationship had become sexual, it caused turmoil among the teachers. Everyone recognised the potential damage to the boy and yet no one took it further. The boy himself ended the affair and has since left for university. It is thought his parents have since found out, but that as the liaison had ended, they decided not to pursue matters further. So the teacher stayed in her job at the same school.

Research suggests this sort of scenario is more common than the odd high-profile case that makes it to court would suggest. Dr Pat Sikes, education lecturer at Sheffield University, has studied interviews between teachers and pupils over a 25-year period and estimates as many as 1,500 sexual relationships could be taking place every year. That would be one in every two or three schools. Controversially Sikes has written a paper arguing it is wrong always to cast students as victims when they are often the instigators of relationships. "Expressions of sexuality are a major currency in everyday school life exchanges. And nowhere more so than in the seductive nature and erotic charge that's often a characteristic of good teaching that provokes an exciting response."

Teaching unions usually get involved at the messy end of these affairs. A spokeswoman at the National Union of Teachers confirmed that, during the affair, teachers can lose their grip on reality. "They think they can get away with it," she says. "They don't realise how damaging what they're doing can be." She is adamant that there should never be a blurring of the line, however close the ages are between teacher and pupil. "Teachers know what the law is, and know they'll be endangering their career and getting a criminal record."


'We just clicked'

Mark and Lucy Peters met when he was teaching English at a large comprehensive. They have been married for 18 years

Mark: "I guess I was about 31 when I first became aware of Lucy. Although I wasn't her teacher we'd bump into each other in the corridors and found ourselves in groups together on school trips. At the time I was living with her form teacher.

"When Lucy was 17 we started seeing each other. I'd stopped seeing my girlfriend and Lucy had also split up from her first boyfriend. We were at a dinner with friends when I realised how much I fancied her. She always seemed older than her years.

"The first two years together felt very illicit and then I ended the relationship. We had five years apart. Then she rang and said she was off to New Zealand. We met that day and I asked her to marry me. Three months later we did. Our daughter was born just over a year later.

"It was a very passionate relationship from the outset and we were obviously right because it has endured."

Lucy: "We had always clicked from when I was 15. It was never saucy or dirty, we just had common interests - hiking and climbing. I had no idea at first that he liked me.

"We both broke off from serious relationships at the same time and chatted about it in the school corridor. We fixed up to go round to dinner with two of his friends but it didn't cross my mind that anything would happen. After dinner we went back to his flat for coffee and he kissed me. I remember going home half ecstatic and half startled.

"After a couple of years we split up. Over the next five years we chatted periodically, but it was over. I hadn't spoken to Mark for two years but an impulse made me ring him. We met that day and he asked me to marry him. It was so unexpected, I said yes."


'As soon as I fell in love with teacher. she ended it'

Steve Graham had an affair with his chemistry teacher when he was 15 years old. She was in her late twenties

"She was a supply teacher. She had cropped dark hair, porcelain skin, and a mouth like Sophia Loren. She dressed very sexily and I'm sure she was aware of the effect she was having. The boys would fight to get a seat in the front row.

"The rumour was she'd sleep with you if you asked. This was an inner-city school and the kids were brash, forward and quite rough. I was inexperienced, insecure and shy, but raging hormones got the better of me.

"I'd give her a wink, make it obvious I was looking at her legs and whisper as I passed that she was driving me nuts. One day after class I followed her into the lab. I made an awkward attempt to chat and then blurted out that she was gorgeous. She smiled, but I couldn't read the signs and left feeling about two inches tall.

"One afternoon she was being a bit playful and I grabbed her clumsily from behind and kissed her neck. Kids were milling around so she stopped me but I could see I was in with a chance.

"A couple of days later I saw her outside the gym where I used to train alone at lunchtime. I ushered her in, closed the door and pulled down the latch. I went straight for it and kissed her. I couldn't believe she was letting me. She told me to stop because it was too public and rushed but we met later in a pub and I felt so grown up when we drove off in her car. That was the first time I had sex. It was awesome.

"I fell rapidly in love. As soon as I told her she pulled back and ended it. The emotional pain was something new and overwhelming, but I got over it. The experience should be on the curriculum for all boys. Maybe it did me some harm but, if so, it was far outweighed by the boost it gave to my confidence."

Case studies by Alice Douglas



Notes on scandals

Attitudes to student-teacher relationships have hardened over the past 15 years. Experts argue that even consensual sexual affairs where both parties are over 18 could still constitute harassment in a relationship where there is such a disparity in power.

National Association of Teachers of Further and Higher Education calls affairs between staff and students ill-advised and unprofessional. Earlier, Association of University Teachers say staff-student relations raise conflict of interest, tutors should declare the affair and cease teaching the student.

Ex-chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead reveals he had relationship with former pupil 11 years his junior in the 1970s. He says affairs between teachers and sixth-formers could be "educative on both sides"; public outcry ensues.

Canadian-born Amy Gehring, 26, admits kissing and cuddling three schoolboys, aged 14-16, at New Year's Eve party. Gehring, right, tells police she can't remember if she had full sex because she was drunk. Court acquits her of indecent assault. Canada bars her from teaching for 10 years.

Sexual Offences Act 2003 prohibits sexual contact between adults and children under 18 in schools and colleges. Up until now, teachers were not committing an offence if the pupil involved was aged over 16.

Legislation bites. Three women teachers in court in three months. Shelley White, 25, receives a year's community rehabilitation order for kissing a boy of 15. Married music teacher Laura-Anne Brownlee, 26, escapes jail for "hugging and kissing" 15-year-old. Loses her job. Samantha Grixti, 30, is given three months, suspended, for kissing boy of 16.

Julia Stuart