Teachers' careers are being ruined by false abuse claims: Guidelines should prevent suspension of innocent staff, heads' conference will hear

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The Independent Online
NATIONAL guidelines are being drawn up to protect teachers against false allegations of assault or abuse, head teachers will be told this week.

The National Association of Head Teachers, whose annual conference starts in Eastbourne today, will hear that a growing number of teachers are having their careers ruined by such claims.

Members of the association will call for the swift implementation of a new code of practice to protect staff and pupils. Local authorities and teachers' organisations have begun work on the framework, which they hope will prevent some innocent staff from being suspended and will speed up the process of investigation.

Since the Children Act of 1989 gave new protection to children who have genuinely suffered from abuse, the number of allegations made against teachers has more than doubled.

Teachers' organisations say the Act itself is not to blame, but that it has led to knee-jerk reactions from school governors and social services departments.

They add that since corporal punishment was outlawed, almost any physical contact can be construed as assault.

Some staff have been taken from their homes in handcuffs in early morning police raids, and some who have been cleared have been too traumatised to return to work.

The accused can wait up to nine months before police, social services and the local education authority meet to discuss the case. The strain has caused nervous breakdowns and the break-up of marriages, even in cases where the claims have been shown to be false.

One teachers' union, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, dealt with 158 cases of alleged sexual or physical abuse in 1993, compared with 134 in 1992 and 71 in 1991.

In 139 cases which had been completed by January this year, only nine teachers were convicted of an offence.

On Thursday, the NAHT conference will hear calls for the rapid implementation of the new code of practice being drawn up by the Council of Local Education Authorities and teachers' associations to ensure sensitive treatment for children and teachers. All local authorities should review their methods of dealing with such cases, members will argue.

John McKee, Kent county secretary of the association and head of St Mary of Charity Church of England Junior School in Faversham, will second a motion calling for change. Children were becoming street-wise about abuse, and would often make malicious allegations, he said.

'Particularly with older boys and girls it can be malicious, but with younger ones it can be simply a remark taken out of context, for example if a child goes home and says the teacher has been giving him sweets.

'Even if it turns out to be a big mistake, the mud sticks. We would not want to protect anyone who was guilty, but we do have to protect our members in these cases,' he said.

Head teachers and staff were often suspended before any investigation had been made, he said. The new code should lay down ground-rules for preliminary checks to ensure that there was a case to answer. It should also ensure that staff no longer had to wait months before being told their fate.

John McNicholas, president of the NAHT, said that some of the allegations had been extremely flimsy. 'In one case a child made an allegation, the teacher was suspended and then they discovered that on the day the sexual assault was supposed to have taken place the teacher wasn't even in the school,' he added.

UNIONS BLAME PUBLICITY FOR INCREASE IN ALLEGATIONS

Teachers' unions believe that an increased awareness of child abuse, because of publicity given to organisations like Childline, has led to a growing number of allegations by children.

While many such claims are genuine, a small number are made either because the child has made a mistake or because he or she wants to cause trouble for a teacher or another adult.

A teacher in Leeds was taken from his home in handcuffs after three girls claimed he had indecently assaulted them in front of a class. The charges were later dropped but he had already been dismissed by the school governors. The 24 other children in the class supported the man's claim against dismissal, yet his appeal was still dismissed and an industrial tribunal ruled it could not intervene. He was left with little chance of ever finding another teaching job.

In Kent, a teacher was suspended after two 12-year-old girls claimed he had looked down their blouses and touched them. The claims were dismissed by the police, but the man remained on suspension for nine months and his marriage broke up as a result. When he returned to school he could not cope and was forced to take early retirement.

A head was suspended after putting his hand on an 11-year-old boy's shoulder to move him from a walkway which he was deliberately blocking. The child's mother complained that he had put his hand on the boy's throat and pushed him into a cupboard. Police, social services and the school governing body all found he had no case to answer, but it was three months before he was reinstated.

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