Eight years ago this month, a 12-year-old girl from a broken home claimed a teacher had run his fingers between her breasts during a lesson. Her mother was about to give birth at the time and if it was a plea for attention it succeeded, because she persuaded a friend to back up her story. The teacher was arrested and suspended for two years until the case came to court.
At the eleventh hour, the "witness" retracted her statement and backed the teacher's account that he had merely touched the girl under the chin to raise her face while he told her to cheer up. Earlier he had reprimanded the pupil and he thought that was the cause of her distress.
Without the crucial witness, the charge of indecent assault was dropped. But to this day the teacher, David Bell, is struggling to clear his name because the prosecution said touching the girl under the chin was an assault.
After a roller-coaster day in court, Bell was told by his lawyers that if he pleaded guilty to assault he would get an absolute discharge and could go back to work. If he continued to fight the case, the prosecution was likely to throw the book at him and he could end up in jail for two years. He was given an absolute discharge, which has stayed on his record.
To expunge the smear on his character he has exhausted the legal remedies, including a judicial review of the conviction in the High Court, which failed. In a last-ditch attempt, he has written to David Ford, the new Northern Ireland Minister of Justice, asking him to recommend the use of the Royal Prerogative to acknowledge that justice in the case was inappropriate and wrong.
The girl's identity was protected throughout but not that of Bell, 54, who taught technology and design at Laurelhill Community College in Lisburn, Northern Ireland. The publicity and stress ended his career, as it has done for hundreds of other teachers. A recent survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) found a quarter of respondents had suffered a false accusation made against them by a pupil or a member of pupils' families.
Now, after years of pressing for anonymity for accused school staff up to the point of conviction, the teachers' unions have a government in power committed to changing the law. Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, promised the reform before the election and the coalition programme of government states: "We will give anonymity to teachers accused by pupils and take other measures to protect against false accusations."
The battle is by no means won, however. It will not be an easy measure to get through, says Chris Keates, the general secretary of the NASUWT. The Labour government looked seriously at granting anonymity but decided to seek other options before going down that road in the face of huge opposition from the Ministry of Justice to making teachers a special case, she says.
The NSPCC is geared up to oppose the change, saying it would create "a two-tier system with serious implications for the anonymity of other professionals who work with children and young people of abuse".
It could send out a message that genuine allegations will not be believed, according to an NSPCC spokeswoman. "If you have anonymity up to the point of conviction it would eliminate the possibility of other victims and witnesses coming forward, which is what you often find when people are charged," she says.
It's not an argument that cuts any ice with Keates. "Using the media to trawl publicly for witnesses is no substitute for proper police investigation," she says.
The unions want the new government to go further and tackle another serious problem for teachers: the "soft" data kept on their records. Mary Bousted, the ATL's general secretary, says, "The protection of children is paramount but it must be balanced against natural justice for school staff.
"Even when the allegation has been proved false, it goes on the teacher's record that it was made, and this may cause even more stress than the allegation itself. When a teacher goes for another job the allegation is there for everyone to see, usually without any explanation of the circumstances. People think there is no smoke without fire.
"As a society, we should be very rigorous about the records we keep on every citizen, including public servants. If the allegation has been proved to be false then all records of it should be expunged."
The fact that pupils are seen to get away without consequences sends out a message that teachers are fair game, says Gill Reed, an ATL member who was falsely accused of assault.
"Three years ago, the year before I retired, the school was having a campaign on uniforms and I told a girl to button up her shirt and do up her tie. She was shouting and screaming at me and we moved out into the corridor. She pushed me aside and went down the stairs into the open entrance and rang her mother."
The girl told her mother that Reed had pushed her and the mother went to the police to report an assault. "It was horrible. It was an awful situation to be in," she says. "I was thinking that I would get the sack with just a year to go."
The police took no action. "The girl was allowed to go back to school," Reed says. "She and her mother got away with it. When I talked about it in the staff room I found that other people had been accused. It had become a bit of a trend among pupils, like flicking paper."
When David Bell returned to the school he too found his accuser still there. Half way through his second day, a boy went to the matron and claimed Bell had punched him. "It was clearly nonsense and it was quickly established he had been punched in the playground," he says. "They saw nothing had happened to the girl and it was open season on me."
He went home that day and never returned to teaching. The girl was moved to a private school to finish her education with the fees paid by the board of education.Reuse content