Why are we asking this now?
Because the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, one of the three big teachers' unions, has just published a survey showing that more than one in four teachers have been the victim of a false allegation by a pupil at some stage during their career.
What sort of allegations have been made?
They vary. The main allegations concern inappropriate sexual contact or assault allegations against the teacher involved. The survey of 1,155 ATL members revealed that 28 per cent had faced false allegations by pupils and 17 per cent had faced false allegations made by a member of the pupil's family.
What happened as a result of the allegations?
In 50 per cent of the cases, the allegations were dismissed immediately. Five per cent of the teachers were suspended while the allegation was investigated and 10 per cent were subjected to disciplinary action by their school or college. In 35 per cent of cases something else happened – such as interviews with the head, parents brought into the school, witness statements taken by pupils and/or other staff or an internal investigation was mounted. Some of the teachers were so shattered by the experience that they could not return to work even though they were proved innocent.
But what proportion of allegations against teachers end up proven?
A separate survey by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers showed that of 2,210 allegations it had investigated over a 10-year period only 88 had resulted in a conviction. In one authority, 50 teachers had been suspended because of abuse allegations.
But should there not be stringent safeguards?
Nobody is suggesting there should not be an investigation if a child makes an allegation. What teachers' leaders are saying, though, is that the reaction to an allegation can be heavy-handed even if there is no proof to back up the allegations. Teachers' leaders have called for their members to be given the right to anonymity until an allegation is proven against them. They would also like to reduce the time taken for an investigation to be carried out. Some teachers have been suspended for as long as two years before being cleared of an allegation.
Are instances of false allegation on the rise, and if so why?
Certainly, the one in four figure is the highest to be recorded by any survey on the subject, One theory behind the rise is that pupils realise they can make life uncomfortable for the teacher if they make an allegation. As Hilary Bills, former president of the National Union of Teachers, said: "The 'no-win, no-fee' culture has encouraged pupils and parents to question teachers' actions in a way hitherto unknown. The almost certain suspension of a teacher accused of any wrongdoing sends out the wrong message to those who want to cause mischief."
Does it boil down to a lack of respect for the profession, caused by a reduction in their power?
Certainly, the Conservatives believe that both heads and teachers do not have enough disciplinary powers at their disposal. One of the demands being made by headteachers to deal with the situation is that they should have the power to exclude any child found guilty of making a false accusation against a teacher. However, the Conservatives argue that independent appeals panels are too prone to overturn heads' decision to exclude and force schools to take children back into their classrooms. The party has said it would abolish appeals' panels if it is returned to power at the next general election.
More particularly, teachers are reluctant to intervene in the case of a fight between pupils or restrain a pupil who is abusive in class for fear of an allegation being made against them. On the wider front of disciplinary powers, corporal punishment has, of course, been abolished in both state and independent schools for nearly two decades now and the most often used sanction is now detention.
How serious can a false allegation be for a teacher?
Just read some of the comments made by teachers who responded to the ATL survey. One secondary schoolteacher said: "Two work colleagues have recently been suspended: one was dismissed despite a police investigation proving innocence." A primary teacher from Wales added: "The police were notified but no action was taken as the child who assaulted me was under the required age. Following this, the child's parent accused me of hitting her child. I have not returned to work in a school place since. I had post traumatic stress and a period of long-term sick."
A third teacher said: "This is a devastating thing to happen, even when all the allegations are found to be totally untrue, it stays on your record and can prejudice any future case. It's terrifying , shocking and very upsetting. It's taken me nearly two years to begin to get over it, and even now I get depressed, and think about giving up work."
What has been the impact on the wider education world?
One of the reasons cited for so few men opting to become primary school teachers is fear of a false allegation by a child and the devastating psychological impact it can have on an individual. Only 13 per cent of primary school teachers are male. Ironically, studies also believe discipline in primary schools would improve if there were more male teachers.
What is being done to help teachers in this situation?
The Government has produced guidelines for the first time on when it would be appropriate to use physical restraint against a pupil and what type of restraint a teacher can use. This has been welcomed by teachers' leaders not just because the advice has become available but because it also sends out a message to both parents and courts that it is not always wrong for a teacher to use physical restraint against a pupil.
In addition, the former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer made it clear in a speech to the National Association o Head Teachers that teachers should not automatically be suspended if allegations were made against them. He also said teachers should have the right to anonymity while investigations into an allegation were ongoing. "Teachers are very vulnerable to false allegations," he said. "Suspensions going on years or investigations going on years ruin lives often utterly unfairly." David Blunkett when he was Education Secretary set up a timetable within which allegations should be dealt with. He proposed three months, although it has proved difficult to stick within this timeframe.
Is that enough?
Worries about the impact false accusations of abuse have had on teachers' lives have surfaced virtually every year at teachers' union conferences for the past decade. Sadly, despite all these measures to try and ease the burden on innocent teacher, the false accusations still keep coming.
Are the problems caused by these allegations really so bad?
*A staggering 28 per cent of teachers say they have had a false allegation made against them by a pupil
*Some teachers have had to wait more than two years before they are cleared
*Some of those eventually declared innocent have found it too traumatic to return to the classroom
*The Government has declared that teachers should not automatically be suspended if an allegation is made
*The ATL survey showed it was possible to carry on teaching a pupil even after a false allegation
*The Government's call for teachers' right to anonymity during an investigation will protect them from stigma