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Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): I am pleased to have the opportunity to draw hon. Members' attention to the case of my constituent, Marjorie Evans. Mrs. Evans lives in Usk, in Monmouthshire. Since 1987, she has been the head teacher of St. Mary's school in Caldicot. The school has more than 200 pupils and includes a special needs unit. Although the school is in Monmouthshire, it is in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Howarth).
Mrs. Evans recently returned to school after an 18-month suspension. Her case has been lengthy and controversial, but the school is not in my constituency and my involvement was therefore limited to supporting Mrs. Evans as a constituent and making representations on her behalf after the conclusion of the case.
I appreciate that ministerial responsibility for the school and for Monmouthshire education authority lies with the National Assembly for Wales. However, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards will acknowledge that the case has national significance and implications for education and the teaching profession in England and Wales. My aim in the debate is to highlight some of the wider issues that arise from the case and its implications for education. First, I want to examine the background.
I was first aware of the Marjorie Evans case when it was reported that the stipendiary magistrate in Abergavenny had suggested that Mrs. Evans could face a custodial sentence for assault. It was alleged that she had slapped a pupil who was being disruptive. The pupil was known to suffer from behavioural problems and had been prescribed Ritalin. The conviction and the three-month suspended sentence caused considerable public disquiet. Mrs. Evans appealed against the conviction and the case was heard in Cardiff Crown court. She was cleared of all charges. There was considerable public relief at the overturning of the conviction, and Mrs. Evans walked from court with her reputation restored, ready to return to school.
Immediately afterwards, however, the police stated that further charges were being investigated and that Mrs. Evans remained suspended. The matter was considered at considerable length by Gwent police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the board of governors and Monmouthshire county council. It was concluded that
I met Mrs. Evans at her home in Usk after the magistrates court case in Abergavenny. She was with her local National Union of Teachers representative, Andrew Haig. Mrs. Evans has been represented throughout the case by her union, and credit must be given to Gethin Lewis, secretary of NUT Cymru, and the NUT solicitor, David Evans.
Mrs. Evans had been found guilty of assault and her reputation had been besmirched by the comments of the stipendiary magistrate, who claimed that she had been a disgrace to the community, the teaching profession and the pupils in her care. The legal aspects of the case merit a separate Adjournment debate. This evening, however, I shall concentrate on its educational implications.
My impression of Mrs. Evans at the time was of someone who was dedicated to the education and care of children; she had been in teaching for more than thirty years. Not only had her career been brought to a shuddering halt by the allegations against her, but she faced the possibility of a jail sentence and the end of her career. Mrs. Evans is a remarkably strong person who was intent on clearing her name and returning to school, but nothing would ever be the same again.
Mrs. Evans has come to personify every teacher's nightmare and she has endured what every teacher dreads. She wants to ensure that no other teacher has to go through a similar ordeal again. She has come through it, yet serious questions remain.
Four key issues arising from the case deserve to be considered. They are the management of disruptive pupils and the exercise of reasonable restraint; the automatic suspension of teachers subject to allegations by pupils, parents or even fellow staff; the need for guidance to local education authorities and governing bodies on dealing with allegations of abuse; and the disciplinary process for dealing with teachers adopted by governing bodies and LEAs. I shall outline some of those issues in more detail.
It is an unfortunate aspect of teachers' role that they have to deal with disruptive pupils. In certain cases, that behaviour may be violent either towards members of staff or to pupils. Where teachers have to restrain pupils, there is clearly a problem of defining what reasonable restraint is. It is a legal duty of head teachers to maintain order, yet to do so they require the power and resources to meet the expectations of society and their legal responsibilities. It is a matter of considerable concern throughout the teaching profession, and the profession deserves clear national guidelines that apply to England and Wales and that are applied consistently.
The case also raises the question of exclusion for persistently disruptive pupils and the resources that are necessary to continue those children's education outside the mainstream education system. There is in Monmouthshire no pupil referral unit for pupils at key stage 2 who are boys between the ages of seven and 11. There is no provision whatever for girls of any age.
I am a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee, and during our recent inquiry into social exclusion in Wales we visited a pupil referral unit in Denbighshire, where excluded pupils were able to continue their education and receive the specialist support that they needed. It would be ideal if such provision were available in all authorities. It is a matter that the Government should look into.
Teachers are in a unique position, as the primary responsible adults with whom children come into contact outside the home and who are in a position to detect signs of abuse. Yet their daily contact and caring role makes teachers vulnerable to accusations of abuse by pupils, parents or even staff. Such allegations may be false, malicious, misplaced or misinterpreted. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards to consider whether it is appropriate for a teacher to be automatically
Even where teachers have been exonerated, their careers have been ruined by the stress of months of suspension, and pupils have been denied the skills and support of the teacher who has been so suspended. There is no question but that teachers should be automatically suspended in cases of suspected sexual abuse or where there is evidence of serious physical harm. The key question is whether it is appropriate automatically to suspend a teacher who is subject to an allegation when there has been no investigation of the teacher's viewpoint.
The next point concerns the availability of expert advice. Do local authorities have access to specialist advice in such cases? Can they remain impartial when giving advice? Teachers who are suspended have to prove that they are innocent; that is quite different from the usual process of law. It is proposed that there should be agreed national guidelines across England and Wales to assist LEAs and governing bodies to investigate allegations before they consider suspension.
We owe a great deal to the people who sit on governing bodies. They give of their time voluntarily, but they take on immense responsibilities for the running of the school. They need support, advice and training to help them carry out such a difficult task as being involved in disciplinary action against teachers. There was considerable public concern in Marjorie Evans' case about why it took 18 months from her suspension to her return to school. She had to go to the High Court to require Monmouthshire county council to reveal the allegations against her and which disciplinary procedures it was following.
I understand that Jane Davidson, the Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning in the National Assembly for Wales, has ordered an inquiry into the process and has invited the county council, the NUT and the governing body to respond. These issues were raised at a conference in Cardiff last November, called by the NUT to discuss best practice in dealing with allegations of abuse against teachers. I met Mrs. Evans at the conference. These issues are likely to be raised again at the NUT national conference in Cardiff this weekend, which I also hope to attend. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment will attend, too, and may make a statement pertaining to the implications of the case. Recently, I was pleased to welcome him to my constituency and to King Henry VIII comprehensive school in Abergavenny, where he heard of the support of the teachers of Monmouthshire for Marjorie Evans. He has been an inspirational figure, and I hope that he will be able to look at those issues in some detail.
Our teaching profession plays a vital role in the education and welfare of children and young people. I commend teachers' dedication, skills and professionalism. They deserve protection from the threat that their careers could be ruined as a result of false or malicious allegations. Pupils deserve the opportunity to be taught and to study in a classroom undisturbed by the activities of other pupils who are disruptive or violent, whether to other pupils or to staff.