Teachers 'presumed guilty' over accusations

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The Independent Online

Teachers' careers are being ruined by the way false accusations of abuse against them have been investigated, an influential group of MPs says today.







An investigation by the Commons select committee which monitors educations says the long cherished principle of "innocent until proven guilty" is at risk when it comes to allegations of abuse made against teachers. It calls for urgent government action to redress the balance.

Their report says they were "shocked" to find that Ed Balls' Department for Children, Schools and Families condoned employers barring suspended staff from any contact with colleagues. It says such actions were "inhumane and unjust".

"There is a fine balance to be struck between safeguarding the rights of children and the rights of those who work with children," said Barry Sheerman, LAbour MP for Huddersfield and chairman of the select committee.

"Allegations proven to be true must be punished. But the vast majority of complaints made against school staff have little or no foundation."

The report says that - during the course of their investigation - it emerged that only five per cent of complaints dealt with by teachers' unions resulted in a conviction against the teacher..

"My committee heard shocking evidence about the treatment of accused staff and the devastating impact unfounded allegations of misconduct can have on those involved, which can ruin careers and come at a significant physical, mental and financial cost."

The committee heard of one case - eventually dismissed - where a teacher had to certify that he would have no sole contact with his baby daughter for a year.

In another, a member of staff at a school was forbidden to watch his son play rugby for his school - even at away matches.

The MPs' criticise police for being too ready to arrest teachers even when they go voluntarily down to a police station to co-operate with an inquiry - and voice concern that so-called "soft" information about allegations dismissed are kept on teachers' files, thus making it almost impossible for them to find another job.

They recommend ministers review whether teachers should be given a statutory right of anonymity until found guilty of a crime - a move favoured by the Conservatives.

They also want the Independent safeguarding authority to conduct "evidence-based" hearings to see whether "soft" information should be deleted from files.

The report says: "Those wrongly accused are likely to go through a period of intense distress and may have their lives and careers ruined.

"It seems that some headteachers are still too hasty to suspend when an allegation is made.

"Headteachers should be made aware that the lawfulness of suspension can be challenged and that courts may not necessarily view suspension as a neutral act."

It adds: "We were shocked to find that the Department condones attempts by employers to bar suspended staff from social contact with colleagues.

"Deliberate and authorised isolation of staff who may be entirely innocent and who may be disadvantaged by that isolation in gathering evidence to mount a defence in any disciplinary hearing seems inhumane and unjust. No such bar should apply outside school premises."

Evidence given to the committee by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers showed the number of allegations dealt with a year had soared from just 44 in 1991 to nearly 200 in recent years.

The union said that 2the culture of allegations isspreading".

"Thee is an increasingly prevalent attitude of pupils challenging teachers with comments asserting their legal rights and threats that they will make an allegation against the teacher if she seeks to reprimand them for their behaviour," it added.

"We were told of one seven-year-old child who was heard to say ‘I will get you suspended' to the headteacher."

The report concludes: "Some allegations will be true. Some will be misconceived, for instance when a child or parent is unaware of a staff member's right in law to intervene or restrain and alleges assault.

"Some allegations will be unfounded but are triggered by circumstances elsewhere and are in effect cries for help and some are simply malicious and calculated to undermine a particular teacher."

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