Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Every teacher matters

Jigsaw

Jane Ireland questions whether, in the quest for child protection, we've neglected to protect staff.

I am deeply saddened to be reading another resignation letter from a teacher. It came following the lifting of their suspension after an allegation of abuse.

We all know the allegation is false; concocted by a disturbed Year 8 pupil as revenge for being given a detention, yet the procedure has to be gone through and, once started, it takes on a life of its own.

People never think it will happen to them and when it does, they are under the misapprehension that they can rely on their 'good name' to dispel any suspicion.

No accidents

Unfortunately, it seems that in our society there is no such thing as an accident anymore and, in the area of child protection, no such thing as a false allegation.

As the head of a school in special measures I was handling, on average, one allegation of abuse against a member of staff a week. Typical examples were "Sir pushed me" or "Miss snatched my phone out of my hand".

I became very familiar with the process and comfortable using it. For the teacher on the receiving end - dealing with it for the first time - it was their worst nightmare.

It is difficult to explain the complicated process of investigating an allegation to a member of staff who is sobbing. Difficult to make them understand that the decision is not the head's alone but that of a 'strategy group' whom the teacher has never met.

Even more sad is the numb look in people's eyes when you tell them, after two months of hell, that they can come back to work.

There is nothing wrong with the investigation procedure itself - it is very fair. The problem is that most staff are not familiar with it and so it seems very threatening at the time.

Involving a union representative at the outset is a good idea, as is taking advantage of counselling that is offered.

Suspension is supposed to be a neutral act but it doesn't feel like that when you are cut off from the social support of your colleagues at work and your everyday routine no longer exists.

Of course some allegations do turn out to be true and the member of staff is disciplined, quite rightly so. In nine years as a head, I have dealt with two allegations that were found to be true.

They were both relatively minor acts of physical force, not serious acts of sexual abuse. Both were completely reprehensible, occurred in the heat of the moment and resulted in the teacher resigning rather than coming back to face the accuser.

Seeking attention

Unfortunately, in my experience pupils do make malicious allegations, usually for two reasons. Either they want to punish the teacher for a perceived slight, or they crave the attention that an allegation will bring.

When children's services go round to take a statement and police officers visit school to speak to them, they feel important. Everyone's sympathies, including that of the parents, are focused on the child.

Eventually, after many weeks and 'strategy' meetings, the conclusion is reached that nothing happened or, if it did, it can be dealt with under the school's disciplinary procedures.

Is the child punished? Absolutely not. It is difficult to think of a suitable punishment for a vulnerable child who has made a malicious allegation. Somehow I don't think a detention or an exclusion will do. But I don't think we have quite got the balance right.

Common sense

Every child matters, but so does every teacher. It is important to see procedures through to protect children but steps are needed to protect staff too.

Within the procedures there ought to be room for common sense to prevail - at least for the head to decide which allegations need referring and which can be dealt with internally.

No wonder discipline in schools is deteriorating if teachers are terrified of telling children off for fear of an allegation of abuse being made against them as revenge.

With the national shortage of teachers we ought to be doing more to protect those we have from false allegations. It is becoming an occupational hazard in some schools.

I will try and talk the teacher out of his resignation. Why throw away an unblemished, successful 20 year career just because one child took a dislike to you and made a false allegation against you?

Isn't it better not to let 'them' win but stay to fight another day? I'm afraid, in the mind of many teachers, it is not.

By Jane Ireland, a SHA member in the East of England

© 2018 Association of School and College Leaders