Teachers are demanding a change in the law so they can remain anonymous if accused of assault by pupils, unless they are convicted.
The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) has dealt with 1,782 cases of malicious claims of physical, sexual or verbal abuse against teachers in the past 12 years, Eamonn O'Kane, its general secretary, said yesterday. All the allegations were investigated by police but only 69 led to convictions.
Union officials say that the true number of accusations could be more than 5,000, since there are two other major teacher unions. All three have more than 100,000 members each. Leaders of the union, who are launching a petition today demanding a change in the law, say that even if accusations are proved to be false they can wreck teachers' lives. Some accused teachers have even committed suicide.
Mr O'Kane said: "Many teachers facing malicious allegations cannot sustain family relationships, have nervous breakdowns and cannot return to the classroom when their ordeal is over. NASUWT wants to minimise this loss to the profession. Allegations of child abuse must be investigated thoroughly with those found guilty facing the consequences. Such people have no place in schools.
"Anonymity will not hinder a full and proper police investigations. It will not protect abusers. Anonymity will strengthen the crucial principle of innocence until proven guilty."
Cases dealt with by the union include one of a 47-year-old primary schoolteacher arrested and charged with causing actual bodily harm and mental anguish to a 10-year-old boy after she spilt fruit juice on his head while trying to remove him from a potentially dangerous situation. The teacher, who had worked in the same Cardiff school for 17 years, had to wait for two months for the case to to come to court then found the Director of Public Prosecutions had dropped the case.
The teacher was named in press reports and was unable to visit her local shopping centre without attracting attention. Her neighbours harassed and threatened her and she eventually had to take long-term sick leave because of anxiety and depression.
In one recent high-profile case, Pam Mitchelhill, a headteacher, was taken to court accused of assaulting a six-year-old although the pupil denied it had happened. Ms Mitchelhill was acquitted. David Watkins, a headteacher from Norfolk, was acquitted of assaulting an 11-year-old by trying to force a fish head into his mouth. The court was told that the boy had been excluded from two schools.
In a separate case, Stewart Logan, a teacher with more than 15 years' experience at a secondary school, killed himself after being suspended for allegedly hitting a 14-year-old boy who had been "taunting" him in class.
The NASUWT is urging teachers, their colleagues, families and friends to sign the petition and says it will send it to Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, and David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, in February.
When Mr Blunkett was Secretary of State for Education, he introduced a fast-track procedure for dealing with cases after he learnt that some teachers had to wait up to two years for their cases to come to court.
Yesterday's figures show that more than 200 cases of allegations against teachers are outstanding, and that fewer than 3 per cent have been proved. Over the 12 years, only 196 have ended in court.