Allegations Against School Staff - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)


17 JUNE 2009

  Q1 Chairman: I welcome our witnesses to the Committee: Amanda Brown, Chris Keates, Julian Stanley, Paul Kaufman and Michael Barnes. We always appreciate it when people come and help us with an inquiry. Unusually for us, as we seem to be in the middle of a series of long inquiries at the moment, this a very short inquiry. We believe that there is a lot of interest in this subject, both in the teaching profession and elsewhere. So, it is something that we think needs an airing in front of the Committee. Thank you for volunteering to assist us. We have had about 30 written submissions on this subject and they have been most useful as well. We have been a little disappointed by the lack of evidence from one or two sources that we expected to be more helpful, particularly the Department. We are reasonably well informed, but we will end up better informed after today. I am going to ask all of you this question, but I am going to start with Chris Keates; some of you will have to wait to catch my eye. How much of a problem is this?

  Chris Keates: This has been an ongoing problem. The NASUWT has been tracking this since 1991, we have done 18 years of work on this. I think I am right to say that we are the only union that has a database that goes back that far showing the issues relating to allegations made against staff. It is a problem and if you have had the opportunity to look at our statistics, bearing in mind that we are only one of the five teaching unions, you can see that this has been on the increase since 1991 in terms of allegations that have been made. The overwhelming majority of the allegations were found to have had no substance; only a tiny percentage of allegations have substance. As far as the profession is concerned, it is something that teachers raise as a concern—it is actually raised by graduates thinking of entering the profession, who have heard of allegations being made—and it is something that crops up quite frequently. When we go into schools where there are behavioural issues, staff tell us that pupils frequently say to them that if they were to make an allegation then the member of staff could lose their job. There is a real issue and climate in the schools and I think teachers and head teachers will welcome the fact that you are looking at this detail.

  Q2 Chairman: Paul Kaufman, there is a smack of guilty until proven innocent in some of the cases that have come across my desk. Is that right?

  Paul Kaufman: In my experience, teachers certainly feel that they have been found guilty before the case has been heard. In the way that they are treated—by being suspended, by being arrested, by being fingerprinted, photographed and having their DNA taken—the whole approach suggests to them that they are assumed to be guilty and they have to prove that they are innocent.

  Q3 Chairman: Julian, I am also picking up, certainly in the cases that I have been involved with as a constituency MP, that there are so many waves of investigation. One that I was involved with started with a police investigation, which found that there was no case to answer. When that was finished, the children's services had an investigation, which after many months found that there was no case to answer, and then there was a school governors' inquiry. Three inquiries, all of which said that there was no case to answer. The person involved was off school for a very long period of time; their health, particularly, was impaired. The upshot was that he had no case to answer from any of the investigations, but he still has all of that on his police criminal record. Is that typical?

  Julian Stanley: Yes. There is a number of issues. Last year, at the Teacher Support Network we took around 132 calls on this subject. That is consistent with recent years. We are finding that people experience incredible emotional and psychological distress through this process. One of the things that the trade unions have worked very hard to do is provide adequate advice. We would like to see more of the kind of support that we offer, which is counselling and coaching, through the process, because, as you point out, it can be very long and protracted. One of the other issues that the council has often come up against is that people are often concerned about what appears on a criminal records check later on and the damage—the potential damage—to careers later. So what is recorded, and how it is recorded, is particularly significant. I notice that the DCSF has begun to accept that the guidance might be amended in the longer term to improve education about what needs to be recorded for the sake of references in the future. We believe that, really, teachers need to have a part in what is recorded, particularly—obviously—if they are found innocent. We don't want to return to a situation where children are not believed and parents' concerns are not addressed, but clearly the length of time that the processes take is of considerable concern, as is the distress it causes to families and friends, and teachers' standing within the school. Returning to work, if someone is found innocent, is quite a difficult process, because reputations are already damaged, relationships are already impaired, and coming back into that environment can be extremely difficult.

  Q4 Chairman: Michael, what is your take on this? The fact is that certain people, like some of the children's charities—the NSPCC—don't agree with the views of most of the panel here. We have not got them in front of us today but they are very strong on child protection and children's rights and would hate to see any change in the situation. Does it worry you that the NSPCC is not with you?

  Michael Barnes: It does worry me, but of course it is not just an issue for the NSPCC. It is a wider issue for the child protection sector. Unfortunately, as has already been suggested, there is an overwhelming presumption of guilt in the accused, and an overwhelming presumption of truth in the accuser. Simply by the law of averages there are going to be occasions when people make truthful allegations and there are going to be occasions when they make untruthful allegations. What I think would be more encouraging is if the child protection social workers and the NSPCC acknowledge that false accusations do occur. They are very reluctant to do so and I think that is a great pity. If I could just comment on the CRB issue, the important thing about it is the way the information is fed into the police.

  Q5 Chairman: Can we hold on that one, because we are going to drill down on it. I am only the warm-up—the real questions come in a minute. Amanda, I am not going to let you escape. The NUT is not so worried about this as other unions—or are you?

  Amanda Brown: Oh, we are worried about it, certainly. We would say that probably the number of allegations—certainly over the last 10 years, we feel—has stayed about constant at about 200 a year; but that 200 is the number of times we instruct solicitors to attend the police station. There are all sorts of other allegations that don't meet those criteria, so there are a lot more than that. But it is not just those. As Chris has said, the number that are actually found to be at fault, either in terms of a criminal allegation, or, otherwise, a professional allegation and misconduct, is very small. But it is the chilling effect it has for all teachers, and certainly particular groups of teachers, who are concerned, depending on their job and exactly what their role is in school, that they may be the subject of an allegation. The impact of that can be so great, as others have said, that even if people are not themselves the subject of an allegation, the fear is there. We are worried both for those who are accused and for the effect on the profession as a whole.

  Q6 Chairman: So, Amanda, we don't really know the numbers—the Department doesn't know the numbers—if we take all allegations, because what you are saying, and what I think Chris Keates was saying in her written evidence, is that we know if it goes to the length of the police being involved and someone being charged, but we don't know those ones that have been settled more locally, perhaps in-house or by the local authority doing a quick investigation. We actually don't really know the full numbers, do we?

  Amanda Brown: We may well not know the full numbers, and there is also difficulty in definitions, because when people talk about child protection everybody assumes it is something to do with sexual misconduct, but almost all the allegations that are made against NUT members, and I would guess against all teachers, are actually about physical restraint issues and discipline issues. A tiny number have anything to do with sexual misconduct, and most of those are around computer issues—downloading of information, that sort of thing. There is a real difficulty in knowing the scale of the problem.

  Q7 Chairman: It is interesting that when we did the inquiry into bullying, we pushed for there to be a register of all incidents of bullying in the school. The Department was very reluctant to keep a register. But it would seem that it is quite important to keep a register of allegations of any type in a school, so we actually know what the level is.

  Amanda Brown: Very much so, because of knowing the scale of the problem and being able to define it. Also, particularly with child protection issues, if there is a large number of false allegations, which we say there is—I know that there is a dispute about that—there might actually be other issues behind that, which need to be dealt with. For example, we know that where there have been constant, or continual, allegations made by a few pupils, sometimes there is another issue behind that, which really ought to be looked at. If it is only dealt with in terms of the teachers and the people facing the allegations, there might be a real problem that we are missing.

  Chairman: So, we are quite clear from the evidence we have had already that we all want children to be protected fully, but we also want a balance and a fair system by which allegations are effectively and, hopefully, quickly resolved. I have warmed you up, and Graham is going to do the serious questioning.

  Q8 Mr Stuart: The Association of School and College Leaders has said that allegations are very rare in some schools and colleges but frequent in others. According to its report, it is less to do with the behaviour of teachers and more to do with the attitude of children and their parents. How can we resolve that particular issue?

  Chris Keates: First, I am not sure that there is a strong evidence base for that. I know the Department for Children, Schools and Families did some work when they were reviewing the handling of allegations on where in local authorities allegations were actually from, and there did seem to be some schools that have more of these than others. That is absolutely true. I don't think we have got absolutely concrete evidence. I think the issue is not to get too sidetracked with that but to make sure that what we have got is a fair, open and transparent system for how these things are dealt with. They are all dealt with in a way that protects the interests of all involved, including the children and young people. There are clear procedures that are consistently followed. The Department's guidance on handling allegations of abuse has been refined over the past few years. We were instrumental in getting the fast-track part of that. It has recently been reviewed and that has been published. It shows that it has made some improvement, but the big problem is that there is no consistency of application. People use their own procedures, and I think there is a case for making some of the procedures statutory at the school level as opposed to statutory at some of the child protection levels that are across local authorities with area protection boards and so on.

  Q9 Mr Stuart: But a reason to focus on this particular issue would be if schools with the biggest discipline problems—perhaps with the lowest performance and with the greatest challenge of attracting good teachers—also had the highest number of complaints. Is there any evidence of that?

  Chris Keates: I have certainly not seen any evidence that there is that correlation, and I have not seen any strong evidence of a correlation necessarily with behaviour problems. Our experience of casework shows that we can get allegations in a school where our members have not reported any particular difficulties as far as behaviour is concerned. What we are dealing with is a very complex issue of what motivates some children and young people to make the allegations. With some it is a cry for help. They are in serious need themselves. For others, it is quite a calculated move to try to undermine a particular teacher for a real or perceived slight that they feel they have had, or the fact that they have been challenged for misbehaviour, so you have got those at both ends of the scale. I think we could get too focused on, "It is certain schools and it is another indicator of poor performance in this school." I don't believe that is the case.

  Q10 Mr Stuart: You said that in many cases it might be a cry for help. You would think that that would be more likely to occur in a school that already had the most challenging intake. Obviously, if there is an impact on the ability to attract and retain the best teachers because of a perceived lack of discipline, you would be further entrenching disadvantage. Does anyone disagree with Chris? Does anyone believe that there is no correlation, or is it simply that we don't have the data because there is not a definitive set of figures produced to show where complaints occur?

  Michael Barnes: I think there is another issue here. In those schools where there appears to be a culture of complaints one needs to ask why that is so. It may well be that there is more to complain about, but it equally may be that within those schools the young people themselves—the students—have cottoned on very quickly to the fact that by making complaints they can achieve the outcomes they desire. There is a knock-on effect in some instances.

  Q11 Mr Stuart: The Department says it is rare for an allegation to be deliberately false and malicious and yet the NASUWT numbers show that of 2,231 concluded allegations cases among its membership, only 105—approximately 5%—resulted in any action being brought against the teacher. The NUT numbers, although smaller, produced exactly the same result. Is the Department wrong, or am I reading the wrong things into your figures?

  Amanda Brown: I think there is an issue about the definition here. We would take a false allegation as being one where there is no outcome that lays blame on the teacher. The DCSF, as I understand it, looks at a situation and asks whether there was anything that could have resulted in an allegation. So, for example, in a discipline issue, if a teacher has intervened to break up a fight in a playground, the DCSF won't treat it as a false allegation if they are cleared of any misconduct, but say that there was an issue. There was a nugget of factual information, which means that it was not a false allegation. There is a difference of definition there.

  Q12 Mr Stuart: Does anybody prefer the Department's definition?

  Paul Kaufman: The Department does not provide any evidential basis for the presumption that it is rare. It just states it as a fact, without supporting it in any way. In my experience the great majority of allegations are exaggerated and fabricated by pupils.

  Chris Keates: I think the DCSF's attitude highlights what I think is a real political tension. The political tension for a Department for Children, Schools and Families is being seen to accept that false allegations are being made against teachers in this highly charged area of child protection issues, which, of course, recently have been very much to the fore in the focus. There is sometimes a reluctance by authorities—be it local authorities or government departments—to be seen to come out and say, "Yes, there is this problem of false allegations," because it might be seen as trying to protect abusers, which the NASUWT has been accused of doing over the years by various groups. That is not the case at all. It is about making sure that there is justice for people and a proper investigation. That is one of the reasons why they dance on the head of a pin about what is a false allegation.

  Q13 Mr Stuart: Are the majority of allegations against male teachers and if so, do we need any form of gender-specific response?

  Amanda Brown: Certainly in our experience they are generally made against male teachers. I don't know whether they are seen as an easier target or whether it is because of their greater involvement in playground watching duties. Certainly our experience is that most of the allegations are against male teachers.

  Q14 Mr Stuart: To what extent are disciplinary procedures more likely to be implemented and used against troublesome members of staff or supply teachers? I have a constituent who felt that because they were in a very poorly performing school in a neighbouring authority and they raised their doubts about that with the management of that school they were hung out to dry when they left the room for 20 seconds and something happened in the classroom. They were drawn out by a lack of discipline in the corridor and yet they were suspended and effectively banned from teaching in two local authority areas. Is there any evidence to back up those fears?

  Chris Keates: There is no doubt that some school managers are more receptive to complaints about some teachers. That is probably a fact of life across all organisations, and it becomes particularly important when it happens here. As we say in our written evidence, the whole issue of supply teachers needs separate consideration. I hope the Committee will look at that. There are some grievous injustices against supply teachers. Often they don't have what you might term their day in court. They are simply sent away from a school and never used again, their agency does not follow up with any procedures and there is nothing of any substance in the Government's guidance to schools and local authorities about how supply teachers should be dealt with. So there are real issues about supply teachers being able to clear their name, in a context where even teachers on the staff of a school have difficulty in clearing their name once they have been the victim of an allegation.

  Chairman: We have to move on, only because we have so many questions to ask you.

  Q15 Annette Brooke: It is my job to ask you about procedures. Please don't see this as a test, but the Committee would find it helpful if you would talk us through a typical sequence of events. We have a chart in front of us, so it does look like a test, but I am not sure this is right, so we really want to get a feel of what would typically happen. I presume you have a hierarchy of responses, depending on the severity of the case, but that might not be the case. Our chart starts with "allegation made and communicated to head teacher". I was looking at the unions to start with, just to give us a feel of what typically happens.

  Amanda Brown: Although you have the chart of what is supposed to happen and the procedures as they are supposed to work, it doesn't always happen in that way. One of the problems that started to be flagged up earlier is that head teachers, who may, hopefully, deal with this once in their career, if that, won't necessarily be au fait with what they are supposed to do and will be looking at a quick guide. We would say that they should have much more training on how to deal with these things, because they will have to respond in an emergency situation where there are heightened fears and heightened tension. They need to prepare for that in advance, rather than having to work out what to do at the time. As to how it might go, yes, an allegation might be made to the head teacher, or to another teacher, and it might be made to a designated teacher in the school who has responsibility for child protection, which could be the head teacher or somebody else. Occasionally, a parent will go direct to the police and we find that sometimes those situations are much more complicated because it raises the stakes very early in the game if the parent goes directly to the police rather than raising it through the school. If the allegation is raised with the school, the head teacher will then have to consider how to take it further and they will be told that they should be talking to the LADO, the local authority designated officer, and they will talk through the issues with the local authority officer. We are concerned that head teachers are not allowed to exercise more professional judgment at that time, because there will be times when a head teacher could say, "I know that this is manifestly absurd, I know that this could not possibly have happened and I am not going to raise the stakes by moving on to the next step in the procedure." We would like there to be, as there used to be, more of a role for head teachers to make a professional judgment. Was the teacher even on the school premises at the time? What happened? That sort of judgment. The head teacher will talk to the LADO and decide what level of case it is: whether it needs to go to a multi-agency approach, whether other people need to be involved, whether it is a matter for the police and whether there is a potential criminal offence. That is another key point because, as I said, most of these cases are about restraint, about reasonable use of force, and if a dispute between a pupil and a teacher is over whether the use of force was reasonable, there is almost always a potential criminal offence there, because if a teacher could, potentially, have used too much force, that is a potential criminal offence immediately. That needs to be further clarified—if this was a playground problem, or a removal from class, where there is no real issue about assault, that should not necessarily be referred immediately to the police. You might want to talk it through, but it would not be a proper criminal referral.

  Q16 Annette Brooke: I shall go all the way through, if that is all right, Chairman. The whole hierarchy.

  Chairman: Go through the whole hierarchy, but don't call every witness for every one.

  Annette Brooke: Just talk us through quite quickly.

  Amanda Brown: Generally, after that there will be a question of whether or not the police are involved, whether or not social services or any other agency are involved and how it is dealt with at the school. The criminal investigation usually takes priority and will be considered first. The teacher will have been considered for suspension; I hope we will have the opportunity to talk to you about what happens in suspension, because that is critical for the individual. Some of what happens at the moment is not in accordance with good practice, and is not even in accordance with what is currently set out. An improvement to the guidance is currently planned, which is better, but suspension is certainly one of the real issues. If a teacher is suspended, they may be called to a police station. As you will have seen in evidence that has already been submitted, attendance at a police station will usually be voluntary, although there is then an issue about whether the teacher will be arrested at that stage. Our view is that that should not be the case. The criminal investigation will continue and witnesses will give statements that will be kept, which leads to another issue about whether those statements are then given to a later investigation at the school or, before that, at the social services'. If there is a school investigation, which is where we at the unions are usually most involved apart from the general support that we give to our member, a new tendency is for the investigation to be subcontracted to an external body much more frequently. We feel that such cases should be dealt with in-house, as there are experienced people on child protection matters within children's services and local authorities. I think that the subcontracting of cases to children's charities or other agencies that have an interest in child protection is a response to the heightened concern and fear in view of the series of tragic, terrible situations that have happened in child protection. Again, that raises the fears and heightens the tensions around the whole issue, so that, in our experience, our members very much feel, when they are put in front of an investigator, bullied by the way in which they are treated by such investigations. As others have said, the process of suspension can take a very long time. There is a criminal investigation, and there may be another social services investigation that can, in some cases, involve the teacher and their own children, so it may have an impact on their own family life because social services have concerns about their attitude towards, and behaviour with, pupils at school. We have had a member who had to sign a form stating that he would have no sole contact with his baby daughter for a year. He was not allowed to change her, be with her or feed her if the mother was not present. That was because of an allegation made at school, so there are considerable concerns about that and its impact on family life as well. Finally, there will be a further investigation, namely the school disciplinary investigation, following which the teacher will be able to return to school if, as we hope, they are cleared. But again, as people have said, there is a real issue about rehabilitation at school. There are also concerns about people knowing that something happened and that somebody was away from school for a long period, but not knowing what has really happened, and voicing concerns such as, "Is there ever smoke without fire?" I think that that affects all teachers, but it particularly affects small schools in rural areas where the school is so much part of the local community that a teacher will almost be hiding behind their front door if they are suspended. If somebody sees them on the street, they will know that something has gone wrong at school.

  Q17 Annette Brooke: Thank you very much for that. I am sorry that I made you speak for so long, but that was really helpful and you made some important points along the line. Following on from that, I would like to ask a question to the other members of the panel. There is potential for umpteen different investigations; is there any way of streamlining the investigation process so that the teacher is not faced with quite so many investigations? They could even end up being investigated by the new Independent Safeguarding Authority at the end of the day.

  Chris Keates: The key part of the process is what happens during the initial stages and the decisions that are made at that point. That is the area in which we did the deep review of the 12 cases with the Department for Children, Schools and Families. We did the analysis, and all the issues that arise around those cases hinge on how well and quickly they are handled at the initial stages. Quite often, if those stages were more thorough and consistent, some of the cases would not move on to a later stage where they are found not to have the substance that would take them, for example, to a court. From our point of view, each of those organisations that Amanda has mentioned has a role to play in certain aspects of the issue. What tends to happen is that if there has been a very messy start to the process—if it has been long drawn out, if there has been an inappropriate referral—that is when you start to get people becoming involved at the wrong level. Also, if parents, or whoever is making the allegation, have gone to external sources first—such as the police or social services—then you are actually not starting on a progressive process; you are starting in the middle of a process and everybody is already involved at a high level before you have had that initial investigation.

  Julian Stanley: From a mental health point of view, one of our counsellors said it is a bit like having a driving accident: the longer it takes to get to the point where you are back at the wheel, the harder it is to get back. The whole thing about the start of the process is about providing some kind of support system, and that is what we aim to do. It is about people being robust enough to be able to engage in the process as it starts and to query and question. A number of people have raised the issue of training and the level of training that is available for head teachers and support and so on—training local authorities has been referred to. It is about taking the right action at the very beginning of the process and not knee-jerk reactions.

  Q18 Annette Brooke: May I come in on a related point? Is the current guidance from the DCSF satisfactory, or does it need changing? Or if it is okay, is it just a matter of training everybody and making sure that it works properly in practice? In the first instance, do you think the guidance needs amending?

  Julian Stanley: It certainly seems as though the process takes longer than the guidance actually sets out; that is the critical thing. It is taking much longer than is already in the DCSF information. As has been pointed out by Chris—the unions are very good on this and it would be important to work with them on this—it is really important to strengthen the guidance in a more detailed process so that a more analytical approach is taken at the very beginning.

  Chris Keates: In our written evidence we put in a series of key points where we think the guidance needs strengthening. There is no doubt that this current guidance is an improvement on what has happened in the past, but first of all it is non-statutory and secondly, there are areas that do need to be strengthened. But also, it is not just guidance; there must be support and training. Training is critical for governors, local authority people and head teachers right across the piece. That is missing at the moment.

  Q19 Chairman: Shouldn't there be a simple little guide for every head teacher as to what to do in a case of this kind?

  Amanda Brown: There used to be a simple—well, fairly simple— guide, certainly a shorter document, which was an agreement between all teaching unions and local authorities as to what head teachers should actually do if somebody comes into the office and says, "We have a child abuse problem".

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