Why are our teachers so mistrusted?

The very people sticking their necks out to confront poor behaviour are those ending up in court

Pam Mitchelhill, the high-flying headteacher acquitted this week after a trial in which she was accused of slapping a six-year-old pupil is by no means the first. In recent months David Watkins, another lauded headteacher, was found not guilty after being accused of shoving a fish head into a pupil's mouth. Bruce Hogan, a physical education teacher for 31 years, was cleared of assaulting a pupil he had marched out of a canteen, and Andrew Morley, again a notably successful head, was proved innocent of assault after he intervened with a fellow teacher in a fight between two boys.

It is becoming rather commonplace for teachers to end up in court - suspended from their work for months as they await trial - then found to be the victims of charges that sometimes seem trumped up, and sometimes too insubstantial to carry weight in court.

There have been so many cases hitting the headlines recently that the anecdotal impression is that this situation is occurring far too often. Recent figures are not yet available, but statistics from 2001 confirm that among 960 teachers suspended because of serious allegations against them, 3 per cent were convicted.

Murmurs of discontent at this parlous state of affairs are finally being heard, directed mainly against the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), which teachers' unions and other commentators say is far too eager to put teachers in the dock. The CPS defends itself by saying that it puts cases forward depending on two tests - an evidential test and a test which decrees whether the pursuit of a case is "in the public interest".

One can only assume, since the final evidential test - getting a conviction - is so often found to have been inadequately applied, that the public interest test must hold enormous sway. Can it be possible that the CPS is being overly politically correct in putting many of these cases forward? Maybe it is time to ask ourselves whether it can really be true that championing the rights of pupils who usually prove to be disruptive, over those of hardworking public servants, is really in the public interest at all.

The case of Ms Mitchelhill is particularly bizarre, since the pupil she was accused of slapping was called in her teacher's defence to reiterate what she had said 11 times in an interview with a police child protection officer, which was that Ms Mitchelhill had not struck her. Despite her daughter's assertions, the girl's mother said after the trial that "justice has not been done".

While this girl's mother had not been the prime mover behind the bringing of the allegations, it is interesting that she believed that her child had been abused even when the child herself denied it. This suggests an astonishing distrust of the teaching profession among some parents, not to mention among young and idealistic classroom staff, two of whom had brought the complaint against Ms Mitchelhill. Both believed that they had observed Ms Mitchelhill striking the pupil. They were 42 feet away, looking through a partially obscured window.

The court believed Ms Mitchelhill, who said she had not stuck the child but instead had held her face and turned it towards her several times in an effort to force the girl into making eye-contact with her.

If this seems rough treatment for a little girl, it should be borne in mind that she had already been expelled from two other schools, with a history of assaulting classmates and staff. Ms Mitchelhill had been called to the incident by one of the teachers who then lodged the complaint, who had been unable to stop the girl from kicking out at her and endangering other pupils.

This incident sounds very similar to the one with the fish. Mr Watkins found himself accused in court of putting a child in "a headlock" and attempting to force the fish into his mouth. It transpired at the trial that no one had witnessed the actual assault, although several witnesses said they heard Mr Watkins saying something like: "Pick up that fish or I'll ram it down your throat."

Again, this doesn't sound like the last word in touchy-feely kiddie relations, although it does sound just like a robust comment that might be made in exasperation. And no wonder. The boy had been expelled from one school before, and indeed was later expelled in an unrelated incident. That he was terrorising other pupils by chasing them around and trying to hit them with a fish in the first place would seem like evidence enough to most people that his scholastic comportment was less than exemplary. Instead, he ended up in court, playing the hard-done-by victim and causing a highly regarded teacher a great deal of distress.

Mr Watkins blamed the CPS and the police for his plight, although he did gently add: "We've got to start saying to people: yes, children have rights and so have parents, but they have responsibilities, too."

He's quite right, as Graham Davies, an art teacher accused of headbutting a pupil, would no doubt attest. Mr Davies was suspended for 10 months awaiting trial, even though his accuser's disciplinary file ran to 88 closely typed pages. The case was eventually thrown out of court. The father of the boy was unrepentant, and told the press: "They've no idea how to run a school. They were on the phone to me every five minutes telling me what my son had been up to. I just said to them 'So what? I don't want to know - he's in your care'."

Is it really in the public interest to suspend teachers who have come up against attitudes such as these, which are patently immoral, and grossly offensive? Or instead do we have an absolute epidemic of demand for rights and an utter famine when it comes to responsibility?

In the early days of the Blair Government, much stress was placed on striking a balance between these two sides of the social democratic contract. But again and again we see that people are becoming obsessively concerned with pursuing their rights and utterly cavalier about fulfilling their responsibilities.

It appears that people are coming to assume that rejecting responsibility is in itself a right. An out-of-work couple with seven children proudly displayed themselves on the Channel 4 series Wife Swap. They declared that the £37,500 a year they received in benefits was "their legal right", and that they were getting back "some" of the tax they had paid in the past. They also sneered at the couple they had swapped with, who both worked and earned £27,500, utterly oblivious to the fact that this couple's responsible adherence to the social contract was the foundation of the "legal right" that they believed to fall from heaven.

The pattern is the same in these cases. The very teachers who are sticking their necks out to confront the poor behaviour of pupils are the ones who are ending up in court. Ms Mitchelhill accepted the six-year-old she was accused of slapping at her school - one of the 200 top performing primaries in England - because she did not believe that a child should be excluded from mainstream education at such a young age.

Four days in, and the girl's mother was willing even to reject her daughter's testimony to see the teacher's career destroyed. The police and the CPS may have the wrong attitudes here. But they reflect a wider culture, which expects perfection from public services, and excuses the most complacent dereliction in private individuals.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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