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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)


17 JUNE 2009

  Q40 Chairman: Fiona, is there a problem here that we should be addressing?

  Fiona Hammans: Our view is that there is a problem. Certainly, when we talk to colleagues nationally, there appears to be a presumption of guilt. I know you will have heard that in the evidence in the earlier session. If it is a member of school staff, it is almost more likely that there will be an arrest and a follow-through by the police. That is our perception.

  Q41 Chairman: Kathryn, you also gave evidence on education outside the classroom. Both of you should be invited to the opening of John Clare's cottage on his birthday on 13 July. It will be a national centre for education outside the classroom.

  Kathryn James: Excellent. Thank you.

  Chairman: I like to get it on the record, you see. Kathryn, is there a problem here?

  Kathryn James: Yes, there is a problem. Steve made a very interesting point about maintaining the balance, and that is where the difficulty lies. I think that the balance has shifted almost too far one way. There is always a pendulum swing. It is important that children are heard and their concerns are listened to and weighed properly, but I think that we have gone almost too far in this perception of guilt, with innocence having to be proven. That is a real concern. Things are exacerbated and move very quickly towards arrest—that is our perception. Both Fiona and I come from a background where we manage the allegations set up and the organisation of any investigation, and our members are subject to those investigations, so we have a dual role. But it is undoubtedly a very difficult and complex area and I don't think that there is either sufficient experience or sufficient guidance in all fields. I would go across the board—teachers, head teachers, governors, the police themselves, as well as local authorities. Although there has been a rise in the number of allegations, there has not been a commensurate understanding that there needs to be additional training across the board.

  Q42 Chairman: Alan, is there a problem, from where you stand?

  Alan Meyrick: We have talked already about a sort of pyramid of allegations where, apparently, only the top 5% are ever proven. The General Teaching Council is only dealing with cases where the teachers have already been dismissed for misconduct in schools, or there have been relevant criminal convictions. From where we sit, there need to be good, clear, transparent procedures and good support given to those against whom the complaints are made and to those who are supporting those teachers—the head teachers, who need to deal with the management of the complaint, the governors and so on, and the employers. Proper support also needs to be given to those who are making allegations, so that they understand and have a proper expectation of what they should properly be doing. With many pupils, if you give them a clear understanding of the seriousness of the allegations that they might be making, you will, hopefully, be able to manage some of those false allegations down so that the only ones coming through are those where there is something that needs to be properly investigated.

  Q43 Chairman: Clare, you are from the National Governors Association. You are intimately involved in many of these cases. Is enough advice and guidance given to your members, in terms of how they behave themselves and handle such situations?

  Clare Collins: Our issue is not with the guidance but with the training and advice that underpins it when you are into a case. A common theme that comes through—both from the previous session and already in this session—is that these things don't happen often, so the approach seems to be that we will deal with issuing advice and guidance and talking people through it when it happens, because you are on a long journey. But when it happens, it can be catastrophic, so that training should happen beforehand. We would be looking for head teachers to be trained as part of their induction to the profession, in the sense of, "This might not happen, but if it does, you need to know what happens." That is mentioned in some of the submissions that you have had, but nowhere is it mentioned that the governing body should be trained as well. I think that specifically, the chair of governors should be trained. If the governance review ever sees the light of day, there is an issue in there about chairs of governors getting specific training. What should be part of that specific training is, "Should this happen, this is what you will need to know." The thing is, you need to know it quite quickly when something happens.

  Chairman: Thank you for that. Derek, you have quite a bit of experience in this field. Are there any general questions that you want to ask any of our panellists?

  Q44 Derek Twigg: I wonder whether there is any evidence, where some schools do well and other schools do not, of some sort of networking? Have there been any sorts of discussions among schools to see where the process works pretty well in difficult circumstances and where it does not? Is there some pattern here, some behaviour?

  Kathryn James: I think that a lot of it is based around the nature of the way the local authority works. Clare made an interesting point about head teachers and chairs of governors needing training. I would take it back even further and say that there needs to be some awareness raised, even as people are entering the profession, that they may face an allegation, because it would start to take the panic out of the situation. I think that there is an element of panic because these cases are so infrequent, albeit too frequent from our perspective. Where incidents are handled well is where the local authority and the schools have a very good support system, a very good network and they offer training because they are aware of the developments within the community. That makes the whole process a lot smoother and does help move things along quickly.

  Q45 Derek Twigg: Do you have schools that are good exemplars of how to deal with it?

  Kathryn James: Yes, we have. We can send you some information, if that would help.

  Derek Twigg: That would be useful.

  Fiona Hammans: I agree with everything that Kathryn said, but it is the nature of the youngsters in the school that can also place staff at more or less risk. There is a management style, there is a training need, there is following procedures and protocols accurately by all the different agencies involved, but there is also something about the nature of the youngsters in the school. There are schools where youngsters are more likely than those in other schools either to distract away from their own misbehaviour, shall we say, or to make malicious allegations to avoid things. That needs to be taken into account.

  Q46 Derek Twigg: Do you think that you get enough support from local education authorities on that?

  Fiona Hammans: Our evidence suggests that there is variability.

  Clare Collins: I support that. There is huge variation in the level and the quality of support offered by local authorities. We have anecdotal evidence of that, not systematically researched evidence.

  Q47 Derek Twigg: And what do the local authorities say to that?

  Sir Steve Bullock: In one sense, some degree of variability is inevitable—authorities work out their own approaches in their own circumstances. What we seek to do is to offer them guidance—that is an area that we are looking at doing more in. What is certainly clear to me from experience in my own authority is that the initial reactions are critical, but that there are people within the authority—often legal people or HR people—who will have wider experience, and getting them into contact with heads, chairs of governors and so on is crucial. Not reacting immediately, but drawing breath is a very difficult thing to enshrine in guidance and practice. That is certainly our experience.

  Chairman: We are now going into rapid fire, led by Graham.

  Q48 Mr Stuart: Is there any evidence that there is a higher number of complaints—we know that certain schools have higher numbers than others—in schools serving deprived areas?

  Chairman: Would you catch my eye if you want to be the lead person in any question? Kathryn?

  Kathryn James: I would not necessarily focus on the deprived areas. Picking up on something that Steve just said, the interesting thing is where, if something is dealt with perhaps in not the best way, that sets an ethos within a school and a school community. It is not so much deprived areas, because in some such areas the school is the absolute centre and fulcrum of that community and allegations are very few and far between; those that arise are dealt with extremely well and the parents and the whole community know that that will happen. Of course, the converse is also true, but it is not so much the nature of the community as the whole ethos around the handling of the complaint in the first place.

  Q49 Mr Stuart: That is a good answer, but it doesn't answer my question. We have very large panels today, of which this is the second, and I cannot get a straightforward answer on whether there is any evidence—yes or no—of a correlation between complaints and deprivation. If there is not, then I could move on, but if there is, I would be interested in the exacerbating effect that that has on the ability of deprived area schools to attract teachers and to retain good teachers and, thus, on the entrenchment of disadvantage in those areas. That is what I am interested in, but that has to be based on evidence. Perhaps we just don't have it, but I would like to know whether anyone is aware of it. Is it not true, or do we not have the evidence?

  Kathryn James: We don't have the evidence.

  Nick Gargan: From a policing perspective, we can map our "busyness" against deprivation and, yes, there is clear evidence that there would be more reports, more vulnerability. However, on allegations against teachers as a specific subset of reporting, I don't have that data.

  Chairman: We don't have any evidence, Graham.

  Q50 Mr Stuart: Okay. What scope is there to condense or to amalgamate the various investigative processes? Those of you who heard our first session, just how many investigations can there be?

  Sir Steve Bullock: I was a bit taken aback by the example that the Chairman gave earlier, of the three successive investigations. That seems to me to be very poor practice. I would not want to speculate about how you might make detailed changes to the process, but it seemed to me that we, as local authorities, need to look at the guidance that we give. Equally, there are issues about the standard of evidence required for action. I suspect that is what is behind the difficulty. I would not want to try to answer that without talking to my lawyers first.

  Alan Meyrick: I think we are quite fortunate in that the legislation that governs how we look at cases sets out very clearly the sort of evidence that employers need to provide to us. If there is some coherence across the collection and use of evidence in the early stages, that means that when we come to our investigation, which is looking at a very particular thing—whether or not the teacher should remain registered—we can use that evidence that has already been collected for previous purposes. The definition of what that evidence needs to be has been set out. If employers follow that guidance and those statutes, we get that evidence and we don't need to do too much further work.

  Mr Stuart: Nick, do you have any comment on that?

  Nick Gargan: Few would dispute the need to keep the criminal investigation separate. Any changes to professional regulation would be quite separate from criminal investigation, but already we encourage our officers to obtain evidence in a way that can be shared and used for a dual purpose, such as professional hearings.

  Q51 Mr Stuart: Again focusing on you, Steve, but perhaps bringing in Clare as well, the emphasis in the last session was very much on the need for early judgment—we heard that it was the early stages where the key decisions are made that had great implications further on. What do you think the local authorities should be doing initially to ensure that the right early decisions are taken?

  Sir Steve Bullock: In some ways it is actually not about taking early decisions. What the authorities need to do is make sure that whoever is doing that first investigation does not fall into the trap of assuming that because an accusation has been made, a crime has been committed. I think the authority is well placed to do that. We have to be neutral in the advice that we give. Once we are clear that there is a case to answer, the situation changes and we would want it to be pursued as quickly as possible. I think at that early stage, however, we have to counsel people against leaping to conclusions.

  Q52 Chairman: Does that suggest a sort of conciliation process before any action is taken?

  Sir Steve Bullock: There can be circumstances in which a complaint has arisen out of disciplinary issues—that may be part of it—but I was thinking more about the fact that most people don't get to deal with this, so they feel that it is a terrible thing, the worst thing that has ever happened. For the accused, it probably is, but in fact, it might go away, and the evidence is that in many cases it does go away because it was based on an allegation that was not necessarily malicious, but based on misunderstandings or teachers dealing, as we were hearing earlier, with complex disciplinary issues. We need to make sure that, in the early stages, we don't ramp the thing up, so that there has to be a major investigation. In those crucial first few hours and days, it might turn out to be a non-event. It is the local authority's officers who are able to do that, because they will have seen these things before.

  Fiona Hammans: The initial phases of any allegation are critical for the whole school community. As Kathryn said, our members manage the school community more widely, as well as the individual student or parents who have made the allegation and the member of staff who has had the allegation made against them. If the local authority is the body that gives the advice, makes the decision and talks about the way forward for the investigation—or not—we want that to be communicated very quickly back to the school. That needs to be done equitably and fairly. We have already identified that there is variation across authorities, and that is inevitable, but some authorities go after school staff if an allegation is made, whereas others look at the balance between the allegation and the member of staff's needs and, as you said, make some kind of measured judgment between the two. Our greatest concern is the variability in the system. The local authority might do an investigation and another agency—for example, the police—might take a different view altogether.

  Kathryn James: One of the other issues, which you talked about, is the number of different investigations. There is a tendency to hit the investigation mill, and once it starts churning it is a long, slow and almost mechanistic process that takes away some of the sense. If I can give some anecdotal evidence, we had a member—in fact, we still have—who in September was suspended without anyone asking her for her version of an event. She is still out of school—almost an academic year. In that incident, she stopped an autistic boy jumping out of a window because he wanted to run away from school. No one asked her what had happened, because everything was confidential. It was suspension; it was a neutral act. When all the investigation mechanism chugged in, when it eventually went to CPS, they said, "This is absolutely ridiculous. No one would look at this and see any sense to it." Then it went to the local authority, who said, "Oh yes, but we need to investigate it," so the suspension was still not lifted. Eventually the suspension was lifted and the governing body said, "Now we need to have a look because the accusation was made in school."

  Q53 Chairman: So the anecdote that I gave, that Steve thought was a little exaggerated, is actually right, isn't it?

  Kathryn James: Absolutely.

  Chairman: One waits for the other to be completed.

  Kathryn James: Correct. And it just chugs on. It could have been dismissed within a week.

  Clare Collins: We advise our members to look at the incident and see if it is credible, which is something that you can do in that first instance of it happening. There are cases where an allegation has been made against a teacher who was not in the school at the time. There are allegations made that are absolutely incredible. Therefore, in those few hours afterward—as you would deal with any disciplinary issue to do with a student or a pupil—you are advised not to take knee-jerk action. That is where I think there is an issue: people are frightened, so they respond in a knee-jerk way. It is a recurring theme of what we are all saying.

  Q54 Mr Stuart: Rather frightening a prospect, isn't it? We go from the suspension, which is a neutral act but everyone infers something, to arrest, which apparently is a neutral act but everyone infers something. You can see why the mechanistic process follows on, because if all those other things have happened, there must be something worth investigating, which is frightening for professionals. Can I ask a general question? When we had the new Schools Minister in a couple of days ago, I asked him to look at all his decisions through a prism of how to attract and retain the best possible people in teaching. Can I ask you a very difficult, general question? Someone in the first session referred to the chilling effect. To what extent does the implication of what you expose yourself to as a teacher if you have allegations made against you—however rare—impact on the attractiveness of teaching as a profession for those coming into it? Do you have any evidence of that?

  Chairman: A quick one.

  Alan Meyrick: Crumbs, I'm not sure I've seen any evidence making a comparison with other professions. In the nursing profession, the Nursing and Midwifery Council deals with a lot of complaints from patients about the behaviour of nurses, and so that must impact on recruitment and retention within that profession. I am not aware of any evidence that particularly focuses on teaching, but that must be an issue. In the earlier session, people talked about the need for those involved in initial teacher training to help teachers to understand the expectations and the policies, procedures and structures that are in place to support them when allegations are made, and to avoid situations that might lead to allegations. I think there is a bit of that needed as well.

  Kathryn James: We do have anecdotal evidence that people, particularly when they are considering taking up a headship, are put off such a role both by the allegations made against heads that hit the headlines and the responsibility of managing such a difficult situation. We have had a number of people saying, "I really don't want that level of responsibility, because I will be working with colleagues who I work alongside in school and taking on a difficult situation, and I know—I have seen it happen—so therefore I don't want the responsibility of managing that."

  Chairman: I think we are going to move on.

  Nick Gargan: Before we move on, can I rewind to a comment that Mr Stuart made about arrest, and the idea of arrest as a neutral act? I would not want to leave that unchallenged. As part of preparing for this morning I dug out the lesson notes to find out what we teach our new recruits about arrest. Certainly, within policing, it is very clear from the training that they receive. The notes state: "To be arrested will be a shock to the person, especially if they have never been arrested before. It is an aspect of practical police duty that requires great care. When arresting people you will be depriving them of their liberty. This may have serious consequences if you are not acting according to law." That is a tone which is heavily influenced by the human rights legislation that is very much drummed into our officers, particularly those who are most likely to be effecting arrests in this arena. They are likely to be officers within specialist child abuse investigation units. To balance the impression that this morning's discussion may have created—that we would accept that there are too many arrests—I don't think that is necessarily the case.

  Chairman: That is a good and fair point. David, we are going to drill down on this right now.

  Q55 Mr Chaytor: Can we go back to the question of the early stages and the role of suspension, because that seems to be key to many of the problems identified? What can individual head teachers do as alternatives to suspension, and are all teachers facing allegations given the opportunity to state their case before being suspended?

  Fiona Hammans: They certainly should be. The change in employment law a number of years ago meant that if you were considering suspension, you should discuss it with that person's union representative and come to an agreed set of actions, because while suspension is neutral in law, it is never interpreted that way. There is a range of options open. Where there is an allegation from one child in one class about inappropriate behaviour of the teacher, you can change the teacher's timetable. If it is something more significant, you might be working from home—in other words, not being in school. You can do a range of things to secure the member of staff from further distress and harm to their well-being and, importantly, to make sure that the youngster sees that there is some response to the allegation, and that they are secured from any further harm. However, it is very difficult when you are in panic mode either as a head teacher, a governor, or a local authority. When you have the press banging on the door and the phones going, you think, "Right—suspend. It's dead easy, and looks like we've made a robust response."

  Kathryn James: I think what Fiona says is absolutely right. Other options are available and, again, where schools work closely with local authorities, we have had instances where the authorities have, for example, used the teacher or head teacher in different areas and had them within the local authority, if that was felt to be appropriate. Whatever is said about suspension, it is never neutral. There is always the thought, "There's no smoke without fire." I think that the issue of anonymity in terms of any allegations has to rear its head, and we would argue strongly that there has to be anonymity.

  Q56 Mr Chaytor: But is that practical in a school setting?

  Kathryn James: It is if other options are considered, because while there is always the rumour mill—we can never get away from it, and that is true in any situation—there is an element where it can be contained if other options are considered and used.

  Q57 Mr Chaytor: When the investigation starts, are you all confident that the balance of rights between the investigator and the accused is fair, or are the odds stacked against the accused when presenting information and developing the case?

  Fiona Hammans: From the information we have through hotline, people phoning in extremis—or people saying, "I've got this situation in our school,"— very much feel the person who has had the allegation made against them is absolutely guilty, and that person has to prove that they are not. That is the position you start from and the investigation manner quite often reinforces that. If you are talking about suspension on top of it, clearly you are guilty. The other thing to remember is these colleagues have gone into a job within a setting that is all about trust, working with people and developing youngsters. They are giving of themselves personally. So when the allegation is made and they are investigated, it goes right to the core—not just the professional core, but the core of them as a person.

  Kathryn James: I think the skill of investigation is underestimated. Fiona made the point that people go into education because they want to educate. They are not necessarily there to investigate serious issues. They may have the skills, but it is not something that is naturally incorporated in their training. If you are called on to investigate an incident, it is easy—in some instances—to see the case stacking up against a person, and not appreciate that you also have to look very carefully at the opposing evidence. That balancing act is not something that everybody is able to do easily.

  Q58 Mr Chaytor: So there is not a pool of registered investigators in each local authority, it is entirely up to someone to decide who the appropriate person is under the circumstances? Who decides who the investigator will be?

  Clare Collins: It is ad hoc.

  Sir Steve Bullock: It will vary according to the circumstances. It depends partly on the type of school—whether it is a primary or a secondary—and even on the nature of the allegation. If someone has found child porn on a laptop in school, there will have to be technical people and experts. Or it might be an issue such as whether a teacher struck a child. So there is no simple answer to that. It comes back to making the right judgment call, I'm afraid.

  Q59 Chairman: But one individual must decide to launch the investigation. Within the local authority, who is that individual?

  Sir Steve Bullock: In the first instance in most cases it will be the head teacher. In a community school, certainly in my own authority, I would expect the head teacher to consult with a senior officer in the children and young people's department, and—depending on the nature of the allegation—possibly push it as far up as the director.

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