Many Members of the House will have encountered in their constituency work cases of school staff who have been accused by a parent or pupil of improper conduct. Usually this will be an allegation of physical abuse or unnecessary force, but sometimes it will be of sexual misconduct. While some of these allegations will be true and should be punished, many will be unfounded, and only a tiny percentage lead to a caution or conviction of the staff member. Those wrongly accused are likely to go through a period of intense distress and may have their lives and careers ruined.
It will always be difficult to reconcile the need to adopt a cautious approach in the interests of safeguarding children and the need to protect the rights and livelihoods of those who work with children. However, it seems that there is a risk of losing sight of the principle that school staff, like anyone else accused of wrongdoing, should be treated according to acknowledged principles of justice and should be seen as innocent until proven guilty. The aim should always be to deal with allegations speedily, effectively and justly, to minimise the cost and the impact upon those accused.
The Department for Children, Schools and Families should compile data on allegations, including numbers of those referred to local authorities and those leading to police investigations or suspension. Only then can it begin to assess the cost of allegations to schools and their staff, both in personal and financial terms. In turn, employers should carry out more systematic reviews of how individual allegations were handled, to assess whether any suspension of a member of staff was justified and whether the allegation was handled expeditiously.
The first steps in dealing with an allegation are crucial. There is too much pressure on headteachers to refer cases to local authorities. Once this happens, there is a distinct risk of a prolonged and exhaustive investigation, even when there is no real foundation to the allegation. There should be more discretion for headteachers, and we argue that the Department should amend its guidance to those working with children to identify circumstances in which headteachers can justifiably handle allegations internally.
Another key decision is whether or not to suspend the staff member concerned. Despite some improvement, it seems that some headteachers are still too hasty to suspend when an allegation is made. More use should be made of alternatives, and headteachers should be made aware that the lawfulness of suspension can be challenged and that courts may not necessarily view suspension as a neutral act.
We were shocked that the Department condones attempts by employers to bar suspended staff from social contact with colleagues. Deliberate and authorised isolation of staff who may be entirely innocent and who may be disadvantaged by that isolation in gathering evidence to mount a defence in any disciplinary hearing seems inhumane and unjust. No such bar should apply outside school premises.
School staff who are subject to an allegation and who present themselves willingly at a police station for interview are sometimes arrested. We believe that this is justified only in very rare cases, and we recommend that police forces should review all such arrests over a twelve-month period. Chief constables should ensure that officers use their power of arrest sensitively and judiciously.
The arguments for and against a statutory right of anonymity for those accused up until the point of court decision are finely balanced. We are acutely conscious of the risk that exposure of an allegation will tarnish the reputation of the member of staff concerned, perhaps undeservedly, and that the principle of 'innocent until proven guilty' may be undermined. The Department should examine the arguments again.
So-called 'independent investigations', conducted to inform disciplinary proceedings, are not always as objective as they should be. In particular, they should not be an exercise purely to assemble a case against the accused. Those who undertake such investigations should not be sourced from organisations which might have a particular viewpoint. Nor should investigations be contracted out to unknown third parties, as happens in Wales. Former senior employees of local authority childrens services departments will often be well placed to carry out the task, as long as it is not done on behalf of a school in their former local authority area.
School governors need more training for disciplinary hearings and should be supported by procedural advisers. Those accused should have a right to legal representation or to be accompanied by a trade union representative in all disciplinary hearings.
There is too much overlapping guidance for those who have to handle allegations. The Department should rationalise existing guidance and publish a very short handbook, summarising procedures and the criteria to be taken into account at key decision points, and containing references to a single authoritative and detailed volume of guidance.
Records of allegations, and the way in which those records present information, can have a direct impact on a person's career mobility. Terminology used in personnel records to describe the outcomes of cases has sometimes been too loose, with a suspicion of guilt sometimes being indicated unfairly. The Department has produced good definitions of terms to describe outcomes but should stipulate that those who record outcomes should actually use those definitions.
Records of unfounded allegations linger in personnel records throughout a teaching career. Although there is a view that employers should be able to delete such records if they are satisfied that the alleged events have no foundation, we believe that such assessments would best be taken by the Independent Safeguarding Authority, which must be trusted to make fair decisions based on its expertise and all available evidence.
We also propose that the Independent Safeguarding Authority should assess all proposed disclosure of 'soft' non-conviction information prepared by police officers in response to an enhanced disclosure Criminal Records Bureau check. We heard that employers often rejected applicants for posts on the basis of unproven and possibly unfounded "soft" information. The Government should examine this practice and either justify permitting it or take steps to prevent it.