Now even teachers crusade against children

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The Independent Online
THE schoolmasters have taken their place in history as the first professional organisation to support the backlash against children's evidence of abuse by adults.

The schoolmasters' association NAS/UWT is in the tradition of butch trade unionism, and its myopic self-interest is typical of the type of sectionalism that gave trade unionism a bad name. It is still locked in that closed culture which forfeited public support for militancy by failing to connect workers with consumers and clients. Preoccupied with their own authority, rather than advocacy for children, the schoolmasters do not see their interests as united with those of children.

In these inhospitable times for trade unions, the schoolmasters' notion of children's malice would have attracted little sympathy had it not synchronised with the great crusade against children. Childline, which receives 10,000 calls from children every week, had 300 children talking about abuse by teachers last year. Its director, Valerie Howarth, says they tend not to name names - so much for malice - and 'usually they want advice on how it can be stopped without it becoming known, because they fear they won't be believed - and usually they're not.'

Parents in West Yorkshire were chilled by last week's news. They've lived with the effects of the schoolmasters' approach. Two years ago girls at a secondary school told their mothers about a male teacher staring at girls in the showers, making them take off their underwear before PE lessons and touching their breasts and bottoms.

Contrary to official guidelines, the schools service tried to contain and control the investigation, though eight girls eventually made statements to the police. The teacher's time was up, it seemed. There had been allegations against him before. Indeed - again contrary to guidelines - in 1990 he had signed an agreement with the head, apparently promising not to venture into the showers. A previous headteacher had also warned him.

Generations of headteachers had kept his secret and protected his reputation. Generations of pupils had not been afforded the same protection. Former pupils, now grown-ups, corroborated the girls' stories. One said: 'As an adult I would have slapped him, but I never told anybody at the time, I was too scared.'

One woman whose grown-up daughter had similar experiences reckoned: 'Most people round here remember something about it, you didn't really think about it then, though you knew it wasn't right.' When the indecent assault case finally came to court a year ago, a woman who remembered similar talk when her daughter had attended the school 20 years before turned up every day to listen. 'It went on for years. It was common knowledge, people came to expect it as the norm.'

Documentary evidence was produced to show that the allegations had a long history. But the defence successfully persuaded the judge not to permit evidence of similar allegations being given by adults. The judge told the jury to beware the malice of schoolgirls. The teacher was acquitted.

None the less, he remained suspended. The head told one of the girls he wished the whole matter had been sorted out by the school. Would the head be saying that, if a teacher had been accused of selling kids cocaine or stealing computers?

The school governors did not discuss this crisis in their school until a couple of months ago, almost two years after it had erupted, and only then to decide the teacher's future. His union representative was allowed at that meeting. Children don't have a union and these girls' advocates were their parents, but they weren't allowed to attend.

Despite the governors' wish that the teacher be dismissed, he has been given early retirement and a pension by the Department for Education. Which means he can resume work in another school. 'My daughter is feeling full of grief about it,' said her mother last week.

So the teacher has his early retirement, the schools service is in turmoil dealing with the fallout from this case, and children and their parents are left with their pain and a kind of punishment for making all this a public problem.

This is not to deny that teachers are, of course, entitled to feel vexed and vulnerable, frustrated by the long delays before investigations are initiated and completed, and the unconscionable delays before cases come to court.

The Secretary of State for Education, John Patten, has long made his views well known on sex education, breakfasts, tests, and Romeo and Juliet. The first thing he did when he stepped off the plane from Malaysia last week was to make a statement supporting compulsory sports. He has yet to make a statement about children being abused by adults, though he is voluble about adults disciplining children.

Children's malice may be the one issue on which the Secretary of State and the teachers' unions agree.