Turning teachers into objects of suspicion

A new book argues that mistrust of adults and the erroneous belief that children always tell the truth are creating a minefield of abuse accusations.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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This article is republished from the December 2009 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

One of the most pernicious prejudices of our time is that adults, given half a chance, will abuse the children in their care.

This is the prejudice that lies behind the UK government’s out-of-control, increasingly unpopular mass vetting scheme, in which adults who want to spend time with, or take responsibility for, children other than their own must first be issued with a licence showing that they have no record of child abuse. It is also the prejudice that lies behind the ‘professional truism or working hypothesis or mantra that “children never lie about abuse”’: the subject of Pat Sikes and Heather Piper’s bold and disturbing investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct in schools.

Of course, some adults do abuse children. Sikes and Piper, along with myself and other critics of the current ‘stranger danger’ hysteria, acknowledge that some adults do terrible things to children and that society should punish and attempt to protect children from these individuals. But the recognition of the reality of child sex abuse is one thing; the overheated obsession with child abuse that characterises today’s society is a different phenomenon altogether. Researching Sex and Lies in the Classroom is a valuable attempt to emphasise that distinction, and work through the process by which trusted, responsible adults – in this case, teachers – can suddenly find themselves barred from school and forbidden to talk to their colleagues, based on nothing more than an adolescent’s claim that ‘he touched me’.

This is an unusual book, for a number of reasons. Few researchers are brave or dogged enough to pursue such a sensitive subject area, and the chapter looking at ‘ethics review procedures, risk and censorship’ gives some idea as to why. Sikes and Piper describe, with palpable frustration, the battles they had to get their study approved by ethics committees, along with their attempt (and ultimate failure) to acquire funding for this piece of research.

The reluctance of others to engage with a study on this subject could scarcely be because of its lack of relevance or importance. Sikes and Piper situate their analysis within the framework of a ‘moral panic’ about child abuse, which has been gathering momentum in Britain and the US since the 1980s. In this context, fears about teachers abusing children, and teachers’ own fears about being accused of abuse, have come to form a significant element of today’s school culture. Teachers seem to have internalised certain practices as common sense, such as avoiding being alone with individual children and being highly conscious of all (non-abusive) physical contact. They express a wariness about their pupils, even while acknowledging a genuine affection for them and commitment to their job.

To bring into the public domain what all those working in education know to be true – that the mere fact of being a teacher makes you vulnerable to arbitrary accusations of abuse, and that the minute an accusation is levelled your life will fall apart – is an important scholarly endeavour with broader policy relevance. But as Sikes and Piper explain, their attempt to get this study off the ground was blocked time and again by committees concerned about the ‘ethics’ of the undertaking: from whether it was legitimate implicitly to question the notion that children never lie to whether the researchers would be putting themselves at risk from contact with abusers or of sensationalised media coverage. The chapter devoted to the study’s difficult beginnings draws out with chilling detail the way that risk-aversion surrounding academic research in general, and the issue of child abuse in particular, leads to censorship – which is then justified ‘out of concern for our [the researchers’] wellbeing’.

Another unusual feature of this research is the way it has dealt with the question of ‘truth and stories’. Although the authors’ focus is on the consequences of allegations of abuse, rather than establishing what had really happened in any particular instance, the issue of ‘the truth’ cannot be avoided. This is particularly difficult because, as Sikes and Piper note, ‘Either way, someone involved, whether the teacher or the child, was putting forward an account and a self-re-presentation that at least one other person affirmed as untrue and inaccurate’.

Partly because of their desire to avoid anyone using their research as an opportunity to construct an identity as a ‘wronged innocent’, and partly because using anonymous quotes from interviewees would not have protected individuals’ confidentiality adequately, Sikes and Piper chose to represent their findings through fiction. Having interviewed several teachers who had been on the receiving end of allegations of abuse, and having received a number of anecdotal stories about other incidents, the authors have put the accounts together and written them up from a number of perspectives: first-person accounts by male teachers accused of abuse; by the wife of a teacher who has received an allegation; and by a teenage girl who has made an allegation. One story is written in the third person, attempting to give the perspective of other school staff and the headteacher when a teacher is alleged to have abused the child.

Does it work, as a presentation? Yes and no. The stories don’t make for quality fiction – much of the dialogue is clunky, some of the names get muddled up, and some of the characterisation makes you wince. Fictionalising accounts is a difficult endeavour for those who don’t normally write, or publish, fiction. On the other hand, the researchers’ engagement in this topic and their open-mindedness to the co-existence of truth and lies within this issue gives some of the stories a believability and subtlety despite their literary limitations.

Through engaging with those on the receiving end of unproven allegations of abuse as human beings, complete with flaws, families and a personal and professional history, Sikes and Piper reveal the magnitude of this problem – whereby ‘a heightened awareness of abusive behaviour can easily switch into an operational expectation of abusive behaviour’. A culture exists that tacitly encourages children to make allegations of abuse, without really understanding what the consequences of such an allegation may be: so if a teenage girl claims that a male teacher touched her breasts because she is angry with him, the procedure is that he will immediately be suspended and the situation taken so seriously that she lacks the space to back down about her claim.

Once the teacher’s behaviour in its totality is examined, as a consequence of an allegation of abuse, the situation becomes very unforgiving of all misdemeanours – not just the physical or sexual ones that may have triggered the allegation. Sikes and Piper illustrate this with a story about a teacher who insults one of his pupils in a discussion about divorce, and calls her a ‘silly cow’: understandably offended, the girl claims (falsely) that he also touched her breasts and tried to kiss her. In the course of the investigation, the teacher admits insulting the girl but denies sexual assault. The story ends mid-way through the case, but we are left with the suspicion that, even if this teacher is found not guilty of the charges for which he is being tried, the verbal insults are enough to mean that his career is effectively over. And that raises the question: are teachers now to be on trial for every single mistake they make?

Few would argue that it is fine for teachers to go round calling their female students ‘silly cows’: this was clearly an inappropriate and immature reaction. But this should not lead to the destruction of a teacher’s entire professional and personal life. Teachers are not perfect human beings – like all other employees, they have bad days and good days, they have personality quirks and personal problems, they may not like all their colleagues or their students. Unlike many other employees, however, a teacher having a bad day cannot skulk behind his computer or easily pull a sickie – teachers have to perform, day in and day out, in front of groups of children or teenagers who often resent being at school, or in that particular class, or being told that their work is not up to scratch.

In this context, it is not hard to imagine that a teacher might occasionally display some less-than-professional behaviour that creates some real resentment on the part of a pupil. Nor is it surprising that the pupil’s reaction may take the form of a slight embellishment – ‘he shouted at me’ becomes ‘he slapped my arm’; ‘he insulted me’ becomes ‘he touched my breasts’. Then if the specific allegation is unproven (difficult enough, because these are classic he said / she said scenarios), the teacher is nonetheless held to account for all his other imperfections. And we have to ask, is this right? Is this how we reward those men and women who have dedicated their adult lives to educating our children – by putting them in a position of such vulnerability to anybody who might have an axe to grind?

Some children and teenagers do suffer abuse at the hands of their teachers; and when that happens, it is of course right that they are listened to and protected, and that the teacher is disciplined. But we have to acknowledge that much of this discussion is not about ‘what really happened’, because in encounters between one teacher and one pupil, nobody will ever know. This means that a just disciplinary or legal process will fail to convict some abusers because of absence of proof. The alternative to a just process is a process such as we have now, which implicitly accepts that ‘children never lie’ and therefore takes allegations of abuse at their word: launching an investigatory process that, even if the outcome is that a teacher is cleared, is an extraordinary blow to his confidence and relationships with staff and students, and will leave an indelible stain on his reputation.

This culture widens and cheapens the definition of abuse, which does not help those children who are being sexually molested or physically harmed. It also transmits a clear message about who is to be trusted and believed, which puts even the most experienced and popular teacher on the defensive. Teachers deserve better than this. The vast majority are neither paedophiles nor angels, but human beings upon whose dedication we rely. They ought to be able to count on our understanding, respect and support.

Heather Piper is speaking at the ESRC-funded seminar, Changing Parenting Culture, at the British Library (London) on 16 February 2010. Click here for more details.

Jennie Bristow edits the website Parents With Attitude. She is author of Standing Up To Supernanny, and co-author of Licensed to Hug. (Buy these books from Amazon (UK) here and here.)

Researching Sex and Lies in the Classroom, by Pat Sikes and Heather Piper, is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

This article is republished from the December 2009 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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