What’s the problem with ‘inappropriate relationships’?
Last year a teacher was gaoled for five and a half years for having a relationship with a student. That may have come as a shock to many, particularly as the teacher was twice the age of his former pupil. But people of a certain age – those schooled in the 1970s and 80s for example – may be able to recall a variety of incidents of teacher-student flirtations, liaisons and even relationships that while never approved of, didn’t seem to shock then in the way that they do now.
These are tricky issues to raise, let alone discuss, so let me preface my comments by saying that any teacher who has a relationship with a student of whatever age is not only breaching the trust which lies at the heart of any professional-client relationship but is also breaking the law. In my view, it’s wrong.
However, attitudes and values change over time. The law that forbids teachers having any kind of ‘inappropriate relationship’ with a pupil at the same school only came in to force in 2003.
In contrast, three decades ago a teacher in the North East and a fifteen-year old pupil began a relationship that was consummated by intercourse only when the pupil reached sixteen and then with the consent of her parents. Their later marriage bore a number of children and lasted over twenty five years.
Later, there was the celebrated case of the former Chief Inspector of Schools Chris Woodhead who described a long-term relationship with one of his students as ”educative”. It lasted some years and both he and she are unapologetic about it to this day.
A teacher doing today what Chris Woodhead did can expect summary dismissal and prosecution under the Sexual Offences Act. But the existing law does raise some interesting issues. For example, a teacher having a relationship with a student above the age of consent would neither necessarily be dismissed nor criminally convicted if the teacher and student were at different schools.
Is that no longer a ‘breach of trust’? No longer a ‘sexual offence’?
Are the issues more or less complex if the teacher is closer in age to the student? Not only is it conceivable that 22 or 23 year-old teachers might be the object of attraction by 16, 17 and 18 year old students – or vice versa – but it is extremely likely. Secondary schools up and down the country are chock full of both. Instances of teacher-student fraternisation are rare, but the opportunities are not.
Is there one of us who at some time in our own school days didn’t have an irresistible crush on one of our teachers? How many of us, with hand on heart can say that we would never have seized an opportunity, had it arisen, to take advantage of a situation, had it unfolded, to sneak a kiss or two with the teacher who was the object of our desires on those occasions that lent themselves to sociability, fraternity and intimacy, such as residential field trips and foreign holidays. And if we had, would we have seen ourselves as the mere victim of a manipulative adult sexual predator?
I am not suggesting that students are the sexual predators or that teachers are the victims. I am convinced that the vast majority of such encounters will end with intense feelings of guilt, anger and loss of trust on the part of the student – though I do believe that those feelings will be intensified by the over-bearing condemnation and judgment of others.
But in my view, vulnerability runs in both directions. A young teacher, particularly an attractive one to students, can be the object of intense and perhaps sustained attention from a determined and charming admirer. If the teacher is inexperienced and perhaps immature, they too can be susceptible. Such a teacher may well be new to the school and even to the area… perhaps lonely and finding it difficult to make friends of a similar age… they may in such circumstances allow themselves to accept friendly, flattering even flirtatious approaches by sociable, seemingly ‘mature’ students…
In such scenarios temptation (let alone hormones), start to cloud better judgment.
But this is where a teacher’s professional values should take over. If they don’t, a teacher is risking the catastrophic loss of their personal reputation and their professional career. The guiding lights of appropriate conduct and professional values are not instantly recognised at the point of being awarded Qualified Teacher Status. Indeed, no profession is immune, let alone one where the nature of the professional practice is based on social interaction, close physical proximity and appropriate degrees of ‘intimacy’. Motivating, engaging and inspiring students often relies on this.
This is where the support, mentoring and good counsel of experienced and mature colleagues is both essential and invaluable. Teaching is a collegial profession and the communication and counselling skills that experienced teachers acquire over a long career can be used to guide and support – not just the professional needs – but the personal and pastoral needs of new, young teachers.
Let us not kid ourselves that the issues surrounding the way personal and professional relationships develop, particularly between young people of a similar age, are ever clear-cut. However stringently we may try to enforce safeguarding procedures, professional codes of conduct or indeed, the law; young people – both students and teachers – need support and good counsel, not merely protection.
In my view, that’s what both the student and the teacher should have got in the Jeremy Forrest case. A five and half year gaol sentence has served only to wreck two lives with shame, guilt and public ignominy.
Alan Newland worked as a teacher and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) is published in February 2014.