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

Memorandum submitted by Professor Pat Sikes, School of Education, University of Sheffield and Dr Heather Piper, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Education, Manchester Metropolitan University


  Over the past six years we have conducted in-depth, qualitative study of the perceptions and experiences of (approximately 15) male teachers, (and their family members and friends and colleagues), who have been accused of sexual misconduct with female students which they say they did not commit and of which they have either eventually been cleared or the case has been dismissed or withdrawn due to insufficient evidence. Some of the people we spoke with served prison sentences, others did not, but all attest to having gone through a protracted and distressing investigation process, which, in their view, was exacerbated:

    —  by suspension, —  by isolation as a result of prohibitions on contact with colleagues,

    —  by attempts to maintain the anonymity of the accuser,

    —  by measures aimed at maintaining secrecy about what was alleged to have taken place, and which

    —  had continuing repercussions for mental and physical health, and for family members, and

    —  adversely affected ability to continue working as a teacher, or in any other way with young people, and insult was added to injury because of

    —  lack of punishment of, and absence of, consequences for their accusers.

  1.  We want to emphasise that we have undertaken this study as independent academics with backgrounds in researching teachers' and other professionals' anxieties about touching children (Piper and Stronach, 2008: Piper, Stronach and MacLure, 2006) and teacher-pupil consensual relationships (Sikes, 2006). We have written a book based on our findings (Sikes and Piper, 2009—to be published by Routledge, in December, 2009) and this submission reflects its content, arguments, and our experience of researching this critically sensitive topic.

  2.  Researching allegations which are claimed to be false is not easy. Establishing unequivocal truth, especially when what is alleged to have occurred is usually said to have taken place in private with only the accuser and the accused present, is close to impossible. We are well aware of the difficulties and we did all that we could to satisfy ourselves that the people we spoke with really were innocent of the offences they were accused of. From what we were told, we cannot be certain that this was always the case in the investigations that our informants experienced. However, in every case the investigation was either dropped or culminated in a `not guilty' outcome. In our book we discuss at length the ethical and methodological issues involved in such research, and the considered choices which we made.

  3.  The notion that children are always innocent has contributed to the underpinning and guiding principle of UK (and other countries') child protection policies and legislation, to the effect that the starting point of any investigation is the tenet that children never lie about abuse. "Children" is frequently taken to apply to all those under 18 and this generalisation can lead to difficulties since, while it is highly unlikely that a four year old could describe sexual intercourse in detail if they had not experienced or observed it, the idea that a 15 year old who is angry with one of their teachers is incapable of falsehood concerning sexual behaviour is far less plausible. Not only this, but the "master narrative" of innocence and its concomitant premise that children never lie about sexual abuse, coupled with moral panic around paedophilia and child abuse, distorts and sexualises perceptions and understandings. It can lead to teachers being accused of sexual misconduct on the basis of actions and behaviours and comments which had quite another intention and motivation. It also, of course, lays a way open for malicious allegations to be made and believed. Acknowledging this is not, in any degree whatsoever, to suggest that children should not be protected but it does seem that in many places throughout the world, we have now reached a situation where adults in general, and those who work with young people in particular, are frightened of having their innocent actions misconstrued.

  4.  Attempting to establish that wrong doing has occurred does not and should not require that one party be assumed to be more likely to be telling the truth than the other. In the past the benefit was on the teacher's side, now it is in favour of the youngster. Both of these extremes are damaging and both can lead to contravention of the basic human rights to safety and to justice, which should be enjoyed by both pupils and teachers. In summary, the necessary balance between the rights of the child (and also the entitlements and rights of parents in the school system) on the one hand, and the rights and professional status of teachers on the other, has been tilted inappropriately. The result is that damage has been done to the personal and professional rights and security of teachers, which can only result in higher turnover and lower quality in the workforce. The Committee is urged to address this wider context, as well as more procedural matters.

  5.  Our book is focused on individual experiences and narratives from those involved in allegations. The research was not funded, and so a systematic enquiry into procedures and regulatory practice was impossible. As a result, in considering the question "How could things be done differently?" we only make tentative suggestions. The following text (italicised) is taken directly from our concluding discussion of these issues and should please be referenced appropriately if used elsewhere (see Sikes and Piper, 2009):

    Children and young people of different ages are not a homogenous category and the doctrinaire presumption that children never lie about abuse should be tempered by a contextual assessment of the relevant circumstances surrounding allegation against a professional, which would include the age and known characteristics of the child/young person.

    We do not agree that following an allegation a teacher should immediately and automatically be suspended. Suspension is not and cannot be in these circumstances a neutral act: as Lord Justice Sedley, has stated "suspension changes the status quo from work to no work, and it invariably casts a shadow over the employee's competence. Of course this does not mean that it cannot be done, but it is not a neutral act" (England and Wales Court of Appeal (Civil Division), 2007). We suggest, rather, a cooling down period of a day or so where teachers or others who know the child/young person well, are able to talk with them in a non threatening way. During this short period the teacher could still be prevented from having contact with students (as is recommended in DfES, 2004a, but, in our experience, rarely employed) but crucially in a way that does not presuppose guilt. It seems very likely that a number of false allegations could be resolved at this early stage before everyone becomes entrenched in their polarised position, and where a child or young person who has lied and invested so much emotional and social capital in their narrative becomes unable to retract their allegation.

    We believe the current system which prevents teachers from talking to their friends and colleagues to be inhumane. A situation can arise where a child who has lied is still able to talk to their friends and get their story "right" but the teacher becomes isolated and disempowered from the start. It is perhaps surprising that any teachers are found not guilty given this imbalance in the treatment of pupils and teachers.

    We would wish teachers' anonymity to be preserved throughout, not just so as to preserve the anonymity of a child but because of the consequences of "no smoke without fire" for subsequent career possibilities, and the vigilante type activity which such naming encourages. We appreciate full anonymity is impossible as children talk, as do parents, but a total ban on reporting could help to keep it local in the first instance (Facebook etc aside).

    Our cases suggest that once an investigation is in play, the interests of natural justice are not well served by current procedures. Thus the insights of other professionals, parents and children closest to the situation are not investigated in an open handed way, but rather the priority is to build a case to support a prosecution. In almost every case there is likely to be a sizable contrast between the investigatory resource of the prosecution and the defence, and of course the accused individual is forbidden to have any direct input. Given that verdicts in child care cases tend to be on the balance of probabilities, these realities again make the task of proving innocence that much harder.

    We suggest the current judicial processes do not serve the best interests of either children or teachers in these situations. It may be that a process more akin to that which occurs in a family court is more appropriate, where the process is less oppositional and those involved are trained and better able to deal with the complex issues. Only if the need for a full criminal prosecution is then confirmed should the full prosecutor process be applied.

    To suggest that a more rounded and even handed investigative process would be beneficial in cases of sexual allegations against teachers (and other professionals in child care settings) should not be taken to indicate a "soft" attitude towards teachers or child protection. Beyond the obvious principled issue of natural justice, and the more pragmatic one which can be summed up as "why in current circumstances would a sane adult place themselves at risk by being a teacher?", is the fact that a more inclusive process would cut both ways. We may be concerned by stories of the type told to us, but we are just as concerned that actual cases of abuse are identified and dealt with. Current procedures can all too easily miss a pupil's story which needs to be read between the lines, and can also prove so intimidating that some real cases go nowhere as a more timid child clams up.

    Thus, a different type of process could have benefits for both teacher (as individuals and for the profession) and pupils, and also for justice itself. However, if an allegation is proved to be false, we think it is wrong that currently most young people experience no negative effects and are certainly not punished. The length of time the case often takes may be a contributory factor, but pupils should be made aware that there are consequences to their actions, and to allow false allegations to be exempt from normal sanctions sends a clear message that such behaviour is not considered serious and that it is easy to get away with it—it also implies doubt in regard to any "not guilty" verdict. This is not the way to treat professionals who can be considered to have chosen a "risky" vocation.

    Our research focused on accusations of sexual misconduct. According to Investigation and Referral Support Co-ordinators data (DfES, 2004b), only around one third of allegations made against teachers fall into this category. In fact teachers are much more likely to be accused of physical abuse and when they are they face the same investigative procedures and the same potentially protracted period of uncertainty and suspicion. Hitting, restraining or in other ways physically hurting children who may themselves have been behaving in inappropriate or unacceptable ways does not seem to incur the same degree of public opprobrium as alleged sexual abuse: the legacy of "spare the rod and spoil the child" is pervasive and tenacious. However, for a teacher accused of physical wrong doing which they claim they have not perpetrated, the consequences for and effects upon their careers and their well being are no different than for those faced with sexual allegations.

  6.  Finally, we believe that this inquiry would benefit from a consideration of a test case ruling made in relation to nurses earlier in 2009. Four nurses had been suspended from duty and placed on list banning them from working during an enquiry following a complaint about their alleged mistreatment of vulnerable adults under the Protection of Vulnerable Adults (POVA) legislation. However, the Law Lords ruled "that nurses have the right to be heard before they can be suspended from work under the... POVA scheme—which has been deemed to be in contravention of human rights" (Staines, 2009). It is expected that this test case will pave the way for at least another 50-100 such cases currently going through the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Words like "unfair and unjust" and "disproportionate in their adverse effects on the rights of care workers" were applied to the care standards provisions applied to nurses. We suggest that if nurses have had their human rights contravened by such treatment, then so too must have teachers. We hope that the current inquiry and future legal process reaches a similar conclusion.

May 2009

REFERENCESDfES (2004a) Thresholds for and Alternatives to Suspension, London: DfES.

DfES (2004b) Proposals for Dealing with Allegations against Teachers and Other Staff: A Consultation, London: DfES.

England and Wales Court of Appeal (Civil Division) (2007) Case of Mezey vs South West London and St George's Mental Health NHS Trust, available at (accessed 20 March 2009).

Piper, H and Stronach, I (2008) Don't Touch: The Educational Story of a Panic, London: Routledge.

Piper, H, MacLure, M and Stronach, I (2006) Touchlines: The Problematics of Touching between Children and Professionals, ESRC funded project RES-000-22-0815. available at: (accessed 10 May 2009).

Sikes, P and Piper, H (in press for publication 2009) Sex and Lies in the Classroom, London: Routledge.

Sikes, P (2006) Scandalous Stories and Dangerous Liaisons: When Male Teachers and Female Pupils Fall in Love Sex Education 6, 3, pp 265-280.

Staines, R (2009) Nurses' human rights were breached under POVA scheme, Law Lords rule, Nursing Times, 27 January 2009, available at (accessed 6 May 2009).

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