CSF Committee reports on the ‘unjust’ suspension of teachers
The suspension of a colleague from school is one of the great taboos of teaching. Upon the lodging of a sufficiently serious complaint, a teacher can be automatically suspended. While suspended, the teacher in question may not contact co-workers, and co-workers are often handed an injunction not to talk about the issue among themselves by Senior Management Team. These are serious conditions to impose upon someone who has just faced the shock of accusations and suspensions, and upon their friends.
MPs say that it comes very close to violating the tradition of “innocent until proven guilty“.
A new report just released by the Committee on Children, Schools and Families (HC695) has called these practices ‘unjust’ and ‘inhumane’. Chair of the Committee, Barry Sheerman – MP for Huddersfield – said, “My committee heard shocking evidence about the treatment of accused staff and the devastating impact unfounded allegations of misconduct can have on those involved, which can ruin careers and can come at a significant physical, mental and financial cost.” I suspect most teachers who have seen colleagues suspended would agree.
Teachers base a lot of their lives around their school. Their colleagues are intimate friends, forming a support network for one another. Rudely to rip someone from those connections is very unfair. There is a counter-argument to be made that if other teachers in the school become aware of who is making the accusations, they may attempt to bully the child into silence. There’s also the case to be made that, if someone genuinely is mistreating a child, it’s unfair to allow that mistreatment to continue while evidence is gathered.
From the point of view of child protection, therefore, better an adult should suffer than a child. Whatever percentage of accusations ultimately prove true, even if they are as low as 5% (which is what the Unions say), it is still better that 95% of innocent teachers be put through the stress than the 5% of children making well founded accusations. That said, I don’t believe the either-or situation is healthy, nor do I believe it is necessary. I believe it exposes some weaknesses in the heirarchical nature of education in the UK.
Pupils behave just like any other sector of the workforce. Some are lazy, some are ambitious, some are calculating, some are needy. Yet the interests of all are served in just the same way – through a collectively expressed self-interest. When it comes to pupil welfare, there can be no greater protection than having pupils look out for one another – each knowing how to access support and proactively address situations as they arise. A big problem, of course, is that giving pupils such self-confidence can backfire upon management in a number of ways.
As a very political pupil, I was threatened with exclusion on several occasions – in one case with permanent exclusion. Having appeared on two regional radio interviews, to encourage pupils to walk out of school when bombing began in Iraq, I was accosted by the Principal and Vice-Principal (Discipline) and told in no uncertain terms that if I led a walk-out of school, I would be expelled. Six hundred students chose to walk out, rendering the bluster of senior management completely ineffective. A self-confident student body would create numerous such headaches.
Actually on that occasion I was kept behind after school to hear an extended version of the usual lecture, which is quite a serious breach of protocol. For any after-school detention, parents are supposed to be given 24 hours’ notice.
While I support the conclusions of the Parliamentary report that keeping a suspended teacher away from his or her colleagues is a bad idea, I think it will take some time before we can treat teachers as entirely innocent until proven guilty. Without additional protection, we can’t simply let accused teachers continue to teach, and we can’t take the risk that others may choose to act unprofessionally in defence of someone they may feel to be innocent, rightly or wrongly. Children deserve protection. That additional protection comes in the form of pro-active students, collectively encouraged to take things into their own hands.
We spend enough time trying to work out how to encourage our students to learn independently – this is just as important. It involves our young people knowing the correct procedures for child protection, including whom to turn to. Pupils should be encouraged to have expectations of how their teacher will act in a classroom and out of it; and they should know not to leave any of their number alone in a classroom with only one adult. These should be the sort of things addressed by the (hitherto mostly ineffective and puppeteered) Student Councils in each school.
From the point of view of teachers, encouraging this sort of positive action is a win-win situation. When it comes to demanding better terms and conditions, our pupils should be asked whether or not they support the demands. They have the right to a say – and such a step might prevent them being used as a political football by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the default press release of which is “Teaching Unions obviously don’t care about the education of children, which they are preventing by going on strike” etc.
Giving young people responsibility for and input into matters of welfare policy begins to prepare them for taking responsibility for political issues, as citizens in a democracy. In truth our young people should have the power to determine many things about their education, which are prescribed for them. What they learn in a classroom, for example. Determining whether or not teachers are permitted to shout in a classroom, or knowing when to approach senior staff and with what evidence they might need, would be a good step towards giving pupils more authority.
All of this probably sounds quite high minded until one thinks that we’re talking about children from the ages of 11 upwards. Pupils aged 16 might be able to deal with such issues, you might think, but surely most 11 year olds are still playing cops and robbers when they go home? I don’t rate such an approach; one of the professional standards of teaching is to show a consistently high expectation from pupils – and ok, we can’t teach them Quantum Physics til they know the basics about Atomic Physics, but we can construct a ladder up which they proceed in this just as in any other aspect of learning.
If it saves the pain of hundreds of teachers, unfairly suspended, put through hell, kept away from their friends and potentially forced out of work, then that’s a bonus.