Dominic Lawson: Hysteria, hypocrisy and the terror of teachers scared to show compassion

His amorous feeling for boys was inseparable from the efforts he made to fill us with a love of learning
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The Independent Online

Paedophiles are sick. On that, both the enlightened psychiatrist and the editor of The Sun would be in full agreement. They are using the word differently, of course. The former means that the paedophile is suffering from a form of mental illness which can be treated, and, possibly, cured. The latter means that the paedophile is a monster for whom the only acceptable medical treatment would be castration.

Like most Englishmen who went to single-sex boarding schools at an early age - I was packed off at the age of seven - I consider myself to be something of an expert witness on the sexual molestation of children by teachers. Once, at an informal school reunion, four of us began talking about a certain master at our alma mater. It turned out that all of us had, at one time or another, discovered his hand groping around in our underpants. And we all agreed that we had neither minded at the time nor (I suppose for that reason) had thought very much about it afterwards.

There was one other thing we were agreed on: he was a teacher of genius, infinitely concerned about our welfare and educational progress. He was the man who put us on the path to academic success. In other words, his amorous feeling for boys was in some way inseparable from the vast efforts he made to fill us with a love of learning. I don't think any normal married man would have cared for us as much as he did.

However, when I have advanced this argument to friends who did not share the peculiar benefits of an old-fashioned private school education, they immediately respond: so what would you do if you found out that a teacher had been fondling your children? And then, of course, I begin to make noises like a red-top newspaper editor. Which, I suppose, sums up Ruth Kelly's problem.

Her solution to the problem is, first, to make sure it is never Ruth Kelly's problem again, by removing from political control all future decisions about whether to allow into the schools system those cautioned or convicted of sexual offences against children. That's fine: indeed if the Department for Education was wound up in its entirety, I'm sure that the nation's schools would run much more smoothly.

Ms Kelly's second solution is to say that in future anyone who has been cautioned for or convicted of sexual offences against children will never again be allowed to teach or work at school. One wonders why it is necessary, therefore, to set up the "panel of experts" she has simultaneously created. If there is to be no discretion, and if there are to be no exceptions, all that is required is a rubber stamp with the words "application rejected".

Oddly, however, Ms Kelly in her statement did not refer to her own recent decision, acting in her capacity as Secretary of State for Education, to allow William Gibson, who had been convicted in 1980 for a "sexual assault" on a 15-year-old schoolgirl, to return to the teaching profession.

Presumably, Ms Kelly had taken into account the fact that the schoolgirl in question had decided to become Mrs Gibson, and that the marriage lasted almost 20 years. Implicitly, Ms Kelly now appears to be saying that she had made a mistake in allowing Mr Gibson to return to teaching. What has she discovered that she didn't know when she made that decision? I suspect the new fact is that she hadn't been aware that she had made the decision, which seems a bit tough on Mr Gibson, whatever you think about his character and behaviour.

Now I make no comment about Mrs Gibson's character, and behaviour at the time: she was, after all, the victim of a crime. But - how do I put this without appearing like a member of the she-was-asking-for-it brigade?- some teenage girls have always been fully aware of their effect on male teachers. A friend of mine, of the same generation as Mrs Gibson, many years ago told me how at the age of 15 she and her fellow pupils at an all-girls school would produce ever more provocative pouts and postures to see which one of them would first distract the teacher so much that he would lose his ability to talk. My friend took great pride in being the most rapid in reducing the wretched man to a state of speechless lust.

That was decades ago, of course: 15-year-old girls tend to be much less innocent than they were then. They can buy magazines specially tailored to cater, among other things, for the sexual curiosity of the pubescent, although of course the publishers insist that they are not meant to be read - oh dear me, no - by children below the age of 16. And it is bitterly ironic that the current public near-hysteria about paedophilia occurs at a time when mothers willingly buy their eight-year old daughters clothes that make them look like hookers on the Rue St Denis.

Yes, you can blame the retailers if you like, but they will tell you that they are only answering the demands of the public. And retailers can't be blamed for the fact that little girls can now commonly be seen wearing earrings, coloured nail-varnish, and eye-shadow. Yes, I know they just want to be like their mums, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if their mums were the same mums who stand outside courts screaming abuse when a paedophile gets sent down.

That public hysteria is already having a very depressing effect on the teaching profession. Let me give you one tiny example, which involves the local village primary school which my younger daughter attends. I should state first of all that it is a wonderful little school, and we are very lucky that it is our local one. My younger daughter is mentally handicapped, and occasionally needs help if she wants to go to the loo. But that can only happen if she is assisted by two teachers, which is obviously very disruptive for the other pupils. It seems clear to me that the reason is that one teacher needs a witness if there was ever any accusation that "inappropriate handling" occurred in the loo.

Similarly, on very hot summer days, my daughter - like all pupils at state schools, I gather - is advised to arrive with her anti-sunburn lotion already slapped on under her clothes: naturally no teacher nowadays could dare risk touching any part of a child's body. Most depressing of all, you will find it very difficult to discover a school today where a teacher dares to comfort a crying child, unless that child comes up and asks to be comforted. In other words, our nation's teachers are terrified that their natural compassion will be mistaken for the actions of a sexual predator.

Now that's what I call sick.