Aseemingly everyday event in a school corridor triggered a nightmare few days for Ben Roberts. The, now 35-year-old head of department had barely been a teacher for a term, when a pupil accused him of assault.
“I was walking along the corridor when I spotted a scuffle between two pupils, so I intervened,” he said. “In the course of trying to separate them, I was accused of hurting one of the boys, but in fact he had tried to take a punch at me thinking I was the other pupil. I grabbed him by the wrist and pulled him away.
“In my mind I was congratulating myself about my swift and decisive action and for not allowing the incident to escalate into something more dangerous, not realising that behind my back the boys were plotting to get me into trouble.”
Later that same day, in May 2011, Mr Roberts was called into the head’s office to explain his actions. One of the year 9 students was demanding to be taken to hospital claiming that the teacher had assaulted him. He had already called his father, who had arrived at the school demanding Mr Roberts be dismissed.
“It was the most ludicrous situation and at first I laughed because the claims were too absurd to be taken seriously. But by the look on the head’s face I could see it wasn’t a laughing matter. I was in serious trouble,” he said.
Questioning of the two boys by the head suggested they had conspired to get the teacher into trouble. “It was a big joke for them,” he said. “I had put one of them in detention the previous week so he was looking to get back at me. For me, this was serious and it felt like my career was on the line.”
Luckily, the head believed his staff member even though the parent threatened to involve the police. Realising the joke was out of hand, one of the boys eventually admitted their story was made up and Mr Roberts was in the clear. “I have no idea how you protect teachers from these situations,” he said. “In a heartbeat your career can be on the line for the most innocuous comment or action, however innocent or well-intentioned.”
Teaching unions have been campaigning for changes to the law to allow staff who are victims of malicious allegations to remain anonymous. Last year, ministers agreed to anonymity for the accused until such time as they are charged, amid claims in a report that almost half of all allegations made by pupils against teachers were false.
The government-commissioned study found that 47 per cent of claims by pupils against teachers were unfounded, while 12 per cent were investigated by police. Six per cent led to dismissal, while only three per cent resulted in a conviction or caution.
Teachers’ leaders said that many police investigations were initiated by parents, even when the school had ruled out the need for any further action. At the time the figures were published, Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, called for police services to make it clear on Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks whether an accused teacher has been exonerated.
“At the moment, the whole system is fragmented and there is too much variation in practice,” Ms Keates said. “An allegation can follow a teacher for the rest of their career, even if it is unsubstantiated. If it is recorded on a CRB form, the view of a governing body is there is no smoke without fire.”
Tim Jones, a maths teacher in London, was accused by a year 11 pupil of assault after he persistently ignored her romantic interest in him during his first year at the school as an NQT. “She was undoubtedly an attractive girl, who was supremely confident and not used to a male showing no interest in her, as she was very popular with the boys,” Mr Jones said. “I had to meet her once, individually, to discuss her work and an assignment she was late in submitting, and she later accused me of trying to kiss her.”
Fortunately, one of the girl’s friends stepped in and backed up Mr Jones. “She had been waiting outside the room and was watching our meeting through the window,” he said. “I was very lucky. The pupil told the head the claims were untrue, that the girl fancied me and she had seen me do nothing untoward. The girl later admitted that she’d lied and was very sheepish around me for the rest of her time at the school.”
Crushes by pupils on teachers are common but fraught with danger especially when there may be little difference in age between a 6th-former, for example, and an NQT. Advice from teaching unions is that teachers, however much flattered they are by the attention, should not engage with pupils in any out of school communication using text messaging or other media, or solicit or respond to requests to link up on social networking sites such as Facebook. Teachers who want to use Twitter might consider protecting their tweets so only approved followers can see them. The most effective protection for teachers against malicious allegations is to be sensible and vigilant, and for teachers not to expose themselves, however unwittingly, to situations which can lead to false claims.
Mr Roberts added: “It sounds awful to advise NQTs to be wary of pupils but assume someone will tell a lie about you at some point in your career and be on your guard. These are adolescents who are coping with peer pressure and raging hormones, so anything could happen.”
Tips to avoid false accusations:
NQT Special Edition
Familiarise yourself with the school’s child protection policy and make sure your actions reflect the contents.
If you are involved in an incident that you believe may compromise your position, write down what happened, where and at what time, as well as the names of any witnesses who may be able to speak for you.
Any allegations made about you by a pupil should be reported immediately to your union so that you can be advised and represented should the need arise.
There are situations where you are allowed to restrain a child but, on the whole, you should avoid any personal physical contact however innocent and well-intentioned.
If you need to meet with a pupil on a one-to-one basis, make sure there is another teacher or pupil in the vicinity, or that the door to the room is left open. If this is not possible, inform a colleague that the meeting is taking place.
Never agree to, or suggest, a meeting with a pupil outside of school unless this has been approved by the headteacher.
Refrain from accepting requests from pupils to link up on Facebook or other social networking sites, and do not solicit this sort of contact yourself. Protect your comments on Twitter and other social media.
Never give a pupil your mobile or home telephone number or your address, and reveal as little as you can about your private life.
Don’t engage in text messaging or emailing pupils outside of school.
Do not attempt to deal with blackmail or malicious allegations alone. Confide in the headteacher or another senior colleague, and seek support and advice from your union.
Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist.
This article was published as part of SecEd's June 2013 NQT Special edition, produced in association with the NASUWT. The edition features eight pages of best practice and advisory articles aimed at supporting NQTs and trainee teachers across the UK. Download the free PDF of all eight pages here.