Should people be allowed to train as teachers if they have even a minor conviction or caution?
My view has always been ‘Yes’ as long as they declare it.
But now I’m thinking of changing my tune, at least in part.
I’ve always said that it’s both the ethical and professional thing to do to declare even minor convictions and cautions. The Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check should reveal serious offences in any case, though whether it reveals minor ones often depends on how efficient police forces around the country have been in their reporting methods.
For some years I have been giving advice to young prospective teachers and NQTs about professional ethics and issues around personal and professional boundaries. I always try to be non-judgmental, especially when they reveal delicate personal histories seeking advice or for the sake of the quality of a group discussion. My approach is to get people to reflect on their personal values and how they must integrate these with professional values expected of them when they enter a profession like teaching.
Lots of young people contact me through my blog or on twitter with concerns about whether they should declare minor convictions and cautions. Often they are worried about doing so. Usually, they have been ‘busted’ for relatively minor offences like possession of a Class C drug, shoplifting when they were a student or using threatening behaviour at a football match when they were in their teens. I have always tried to get them to see things in perspective and have offered re-assurance, saying things like: “Such offences are unlikely to blight your career prospects… better to declare now than your employer finding out later… head teachers and governing bodies are much more tolerant and forgiving than you might think…” etc etc.
But apparently I have been wrong.
Over recent months I have received a regular flow of feedback from people to tell me that they have had their applications rejected or been dropped from shortlists once they had come clean about their convictions and cautions, either on application forms or at interview stage. I have been genuinely astonished that some of these people – clearly excellent candidates for teaching – have been turned away from jobs and from starting teacher training courses because they have been honest enough to declare a minor offence or misdemeanor, often committed years ago.
One young man who recently corresponded with me is a good example of many. He had a 2:1 in mathematics and was in the midst of a successful career for a globally recognised firm in the City. He decided he wanted to a more satisfaying career and chose to teach but was finding it impossible to get any teacher-training provider to consider his application because some years ago, he had accepted a caution for consensual ‘sex with an adult in a public place’. (The company he worked for by the way, knew of the offence and considered it neither serious enough nor relevant to alter their view of his position).
As a headteacher, I employed a number of people over the years with ‘spent’ minor convictions. Invariably they turned out to be excellent teachers. I thought that my attitude – which can be summed up as ‘as long as the offence is not serious enough to question the safety of children or catastrophically damage reputation then ‘live and let live’.
But now it seems such attitudes are not as widespread as they once were. Most of the head teachers and chairs of governing bodies I have spoken to in recent months about this say they are unwilling to take the risk of appointing teachers with even minor convictions: saying things like: “There is a buyers market out there… we can pick and choose from good teachers who have no ‘record’, so why take a risk?… teachers have to be role models” etc etc.
They have a point of course, but I worry about the fairness of this. How many of these people now in positions of authority and responsibility and able to determine the career prospects of others have never done any of the things they now deem ‘inappropriate’, ‘unsuitable’ and ‘unprofessional’ in others?
My educated guess – and this is from direct, personal experience – is that it is almost none of them.
When people get in to their middle age, have children of their own or get into responsible positions of authority, they very often forget what they were like when they were young – and I don’t mean as ‘wayward teenagers’ or ‘irresponsible students’ – but as young teachers themselves.
I look back on the hundreds of colleagues I have been in teaching with over thirty years and I can confidently say that 99% of them – even the good, honest, decent, brilliant teachers among them – have been guilty of such crimes and misdemeanors as those listed above… and more!
The crucial difference was – they just didn’t get caught.
Many of the people I knew, indeed most, went on not only to be excellent and inspiring teachers but also head teachers, some now at highly successful and reputable schools, or senior advisors with local authorities and the DfE, others as inspectors with Ofsted.
How do I know they were guilty of such crimes and misdemeanors? Because I did such things with them.
Am I condoning criminal behaviour? No.
Do I think being guilty of such crimes and misdemeanors disqualifies people from being good teachers? No.
Should young people who have the skills, aptitude and motivation to give up successful careers to devote their lives to teaching be given a second chance? Yes.
I’m not saying we should be turning a blind eye to ‘breaking bad’ and cooking crystal meth. I’m talking about blighting the prospects of people who want to be teachers because they have been convicted or cautioned for a minor offence. If we are not prepared to allow these people to redeem themselves and have another chance when they do own up to such offences, then perhaps we should not expect them to be honest enough to declare them in the first place.
The Guardian newspaper has been running a series of popular articles by a ‘Secret Teacher’ revealing ‘what it’s really like to be a teacher’ in 21st century Britain. The articles have at times revealed some shocking revelations.
Now the Care Quality Commission – the body responsible for guarding patient safety in places like care homes for the elderly – has announced that its new inspection regime will include the possibility of using hidden cameras to ensure care staff are not abusing patients. Big Brother Watch – a pressure group monitoring the scope and extent of official surveillance of private behaviour – has weighed in, saying that where there is no reasonable cause for concern this is likely to infringe a patient’s right to dignity and privacy.
Over the last couple of years, some nurses have found themselves in front of disciplinary panels of their professional bodies for taking hidden cameras and secretly filming what has been going on in hospitals and care homes where they believed patients were getting a poor deal or even suffering abuse. They claim that their motivation was to bring to public attention patient neglect and abuse. Nevertheless, they filmed their patients without their knowledge or consent.
Uncovering wrongdoing, misconduct and professional incompetence is usually considered heroic. ‘Whistle-blowers’ are people who after all, are putting their own professional reputation, career and livelihood at risk.
Why should we feel any different about that if someone in authority such as an inspection body takes up that role?
If Ofsted were to announce it was intending to put cameras in to schools as part of standard inspection procedures or even in the classrooms of schools where they had specific concerns, what do you think the reaction would be?
(Actually, I’m a bit worried about giving them ideas here…!)
But you may be surprised to learn that someone else has got there first…
Some years ago, a headteacher colleague of mine described to me his novel method for dealing with seriously disruptive behaviour by persistent offenders. He had, where he felt necessary, installed video cameras in classrooms to record and show the evidence of a child’s serious disruption to their parents. He claimed it was extremely effective in dealing with serious and persistently disruptive behaviour.
A couple of years ago a teacher in collaboration with a television production company did something similar. She filmed – secretly – the extremely disruptive behaviour of the children she taught and presented the evidence on television as ‘a matter of public interest and concern’; claiming that such behaviour was not only damaging to other children’s education but also to the ability of teachers to teach effectively.
She also claimed that schools colluded in keeping disciplinary issues ‘quiet’ and failed to address them assertively because high numbers of exclusions would result in poor Ofsted ratings.
Serious and persistent school indiscipline is a legitimate matter for public concern, but should teachers have the right to film it?
Are they doing something that many would argue is fundamentally damaging the relationship of trust with their clients?
In the case of the teacher and the television programme – was she also potentially damaging the reputation of colleagues, the school and the teaching profession?
Is filming clients without consent unethical, unprofessional or both?
Is a filming client with consent a breach of dignity and privacy?
And in whose interest is it that such a thing be done – the client’s, the public’s or the teacher’s?
What do you think?
The decision by Birmingham Metropolitan College to change its policy and reverse the ban on students wearing the niqab has certainly attracted attention.
Are there professional and ethical issues related to the wearing of veils in schools?
My own view is that adults have a right to wear whatever they like in public – even things that cover their face – as long as doing so does not create a risk to personal safety or security. Women at the college were perfectly willing to show their faces when asked to identify themselves, so that satisfies concerns I would have had in that regard.
But only to some extent.
First, many of these women (as I understand it) are not yet adults – as the ones I saw interviewed and read about where 16 and 17 year-old girls. Secondly, schools, colleges and publicly funded education institutions – are not public places.
I do not instinctively like the idea of women wearing niqabs, though I defend their right to do so. As a western liberal I am torn between personal free-will and the idea that people are choosing to present themselves to society wearing clothes that will inevitably marginalize or exclude them from inclusive social discourse.
But people wear all kinds of things in public I hate looking at – though I try to be tolerant. I’m not a big fan of hoodies especially when I sense secretive motives in the wearer; I think baggy jeans that barely hang round the mid-riff of young men look ridiculous (Alexander McQueen – God-rest his soul – has a lot to answer for) and don’t get me started on obese men and women who think that wearing skimpy vests and tops in the summer looks like the height of fashion! (I can hear myself beginning to rant now…)
As a fully paid up member of the Guardian reading, metro-liberal chattering classes I am of course prepared to be tolerant of adults with deep religious affiliations who want to wear items of clothing that I might find curious, ridiculous or even offensive.
But as a teacher, I think we need to draw a line in a different place.
Schools are special communities. They are places where the educational, social and emotional needs of young people are being addressed and where identities are being nurtured as part of a cohesive, inclusive society.
Those needs depend on intimate relationships of trust. First, intimate peer-group relationships like friendship and fellowship between young people themselves; secondly intimate professional relationships between teachers and pupils.
We not only allow intimate professional relationships but we expect them – teachers must coach, instruct and inspire their pupils and much more. This educational and social interaction – this inter-face between teachers and young people necessarily involves and requires physical contact. The effectiveness of this process is enhanced by full eye contact, gesture and facial expression.
Schools are places we have created to pass on not only society’s most valued knowledge and skills but also its shared values. While we can quibble about the exact content of the national curriculum and we argue about personal values, we would – or should – agree that all children are entitled to a broad, balanced, inclusive education based on liberal values.
In my view, veiling one’s face runs counter to the effective achievement of that purpose. So for me, a veiled face should not be allowed in a school whether it’s worn either by a teacher or a pupil.
I may be wrong about this and I am willing to be dissuaded of my view – and please use this blog to try – but as a western liberal, I am genuinely disturbed by the desire of some Muslim women to relate to a society they have been born and brought up in in terms that purposely create a barrier to social discourse and integration.
However, as that same western liberal I am willing – reluctantly – to tolerate it from adults acting on their own free-will in a free society.
But as a teacher, I draw the line. Not in schools.
As a child, if ever I came home from school complaining of people calling me names, my mother would say: “Ignore them. Otherwise they’ll do it even more. Don’t play with people who call you names.”
If I ever protested, she would get visibly irritated: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. Say that and walk away.”
Sometimes I found her advice very difficult to take. It always seemed inadequate and it never satisfied my inflamed need for retribution against the perpetrators or perversely, for my desire of their acceptance and inclusion of me in their group.
Sometimes if I could not resist the temptation to retaliate, my mother would say: “If and when you come off worse… don’t come crying to me!”
By the time I became a teacher, I had graduated to dishing out the same advice.
In the jungle that is the playground, children have to find a way to cope and protect themselves against name-calling – simply because most of it will go un-witnessed. It’s usually one person’s word against another. Even when it is reported, perpetrators usually deny it, or say: “I was only joking Sir… I didn’t mean anything bad!”
By name-calling, I’m not talking about racist, sexist or homophobic abuse – that is something we should not tolerate. I’m not condoning name-calling, but if we take all kinds as seriously as that, the effect is not to take any abusive language seriously at all. As teachers, we have to make an assessment of seriousness and credibility.
Any teacher who has done their share of playground duties over the years will know the scene: children who cannot seem to protect themselves from name-callers come regularly complaining or seeking protection. In serious cases the only remedy that teachers can provide is temporary – which might involve allowing victims to stay out of the playground for a day or two or have them walk around the playground holding on to your hand or invite sets of parents in to discuss issues etc etc etc – all enough reason for name-callers to want to wind-up their victims even more.
Aggravated name-calling is a sign of psychological and emotional flaws and teachers can only do so much to prevent and protect. The roots of it lie deeper than we can normally get to.
Name-callers are after all people who know how to get a reaction. They are skilled in learning which buttons to press and when. They are expert ‘wind-up merchants’. For many of them, a future writing the headlines at the Daily Mail will be a natural career choice.
Social media managers – or indeed anyone who engages in social networking – knows that the first rule of social media engagement is:
it’s the 21st century equivalent of my mother’s advice of “Ignore them. Otherwise they’ll do it even more.”
The recent tragic suicides of teenage girls in the UK, Ireland and the US who have felt overwhelmed by obscene and abusive trolling testifies to the perceived power of social networking on the internet. Similarly, the trolling of feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and Guardian writer Hadley Freeman have been disgusting and disgraceful and must have felt extremely intimidating and threatening.
I accept completely that these women are not provoking the trolling. I also accept that they should not have to temper their views just because anonymous misogynists are trying to intimidate them. I again accept that making physical threats is illegal. Indeed, the defiance of these women has my unbounded admiration.
But in my view, the only way to deal with trolls is to take my mother’s advice – as difficult as that may be.
Threats to rape and bomb feminist campaigners – as disgusting as those threats are – are simply not credible as serious threats. Being on the receiving end of such stuff – though extremely unpleasant – can be dealt with only by adopting my mother’s maxim.
Speech, however offensive, is not an act of violence. Threats, however intimidating, have to be assessed by their credibility.
As a teacher – even in a primary school – I was aware that there were kids in the playground who were genuinely vulnerable to physical intimidation and violence.
As a teacher, I have to distinguish between threats that – in my assessment on the spot, day in and day out – are real and those that are a ‘wind-up’. My focus has to be on protecting children from what I assess are credible and serious threats of physical intimidation and violence. Name-calling – however unpleasant – is mostly a ‘wind-up’.
But as in the case of the teenage girls, the ‘wind-up’ can become a feeding frenzy that can feel overwhelming. But it could have been neutralized immediately – if those girls had stopped using social media, even for a while.
As teachers, we must assess everyday the so-called threats coming from kids using foul-mouthed misogynistic language, including rap lyrics. Does mouthing these mean they have become misogynists and are about to commit acts of sexual violence and rape? As unpleasant as rap lyrics are, I think not.
Should we take any more seriously an idiot with a foul mouth, a filthy mind and a Twitter account?
Police time would be much better spent protecting girls and women from real threats – and real acts of grooming, violence and intimidation and teachers must do like-wise with vulnerable children in the classroom and the playground.
The blogosphere is a very big playground. Most people in the playground know how to play nicely. But in every playground, there are highly-skilled, expert name-calling wind-up merchants. Their influence is relies on people taking notice of them.
If we don’t feed them, they starve. Either that or we have to choose to stay out of the playground.
The final stage of your teacher training is in sight. You’ve had a really good teaching practice and you’re applying for jobs here, there and everywhere. You’re so keen, you’ll teach in Timbuktu if you have to.
Then you see a question on an application form that may prove a little tricky…
What was your last job and why did you leave it?
You were a retail assistant at a clothes store. You got the sack. The week’s takings at the shop were down and you and another assistant had been questioned about why. Nothing was proved and you vehemently denied any implication of theft, but you and the other assistant were dismissed.
You know you shouldn’t lie, but you could just say you were unemployed during that period or you were travelling abroad…? How would they know otherwise…? Would you believe someone who said: “Yes, I was sacked for theft but honestly I didn’t do it!”? As a teacher you’re supposed to be a role model, but who’s going to employ an alleged thief to teach their kids?
What will you do…?
You told the truth, got an interview and they were very understanding. The interview was tough but you answered questions really well and now they’ve offered you the job! It’s a nice school, with a good head and you’ve even met the staff and the class you’ll have next year. You can’t wait for September to come!
Then you are sent a medical questionnaire to complete … there’s a couple of questions you are not sure how to answer…
Do you suffer any long-term or chronic medical conditions for which you need regular treatment?
You’ve been prescribed medication for bouts of depression suffered during your degree course and for a period at the beginning of your teacher training, but you’ve been fine now for months. Do you tell them?
Yes. Of course you do. Lots of people suffer depression and anyway, in your case, it’s not a chronic condition. You come clean about it.
Then there’s another question…
Do you consider yourself to have a disability?
You are dyslexic. You’ve managed to get through a whole university degree plus a PGCE without it crippling your chances of becoming a teacher… the university knew about it… and your tutors were very supportive, they even made some allowances for your essay submissions and exams. Surely it shouldn’t matter now?
Maybe you could just say “No” as you have never considered your dyslexia as a disability?
But what if you make regular spelling mistakes in your planning folder and the Headteacher asks you to explain yourself? What if you make errors in your marking and the students comment on it? What if you make errors in writing progress reports or letters home and it leads to complaints from parents? You won’t be able to make the excuse that you have a ‘disability’ then…
What should you say with this and all those other ‘awkward’ questions..?
Well… the answer is obvious and if I need to tell what it is, you are already in the wrong business. However, here is some re-assurance.
As for declaring the reasons you have left your previous job… there are about twenty-five thousand new teachers qualifying every year and you might be surprised to learn that a lot of them – plus hoary old ones like me – left previous jobs for all kinds of spurious reasons and lived to tell the tale of a successful teaching career.
If you have an ongoing medical condition that you may need support with but are not sure whether it counts as “long term or chronic” – you ask a union or the CAB for advice or consult your GP about what you have a right to keep discreet and what you might be expected that you divulge. Once again, it will be too late to say you need support for something you didn’t make your employer aware of when they offered you the job.
If you have a disability then you’ll already know that the Equality Act 2010 protects you from employment discrimination and this covers areas such as application forms and job offers. An employer can only make limited enquiries about your health or disability on an application form or at interview. If you need advice about whether the question is one that is allowed to be asked at that stage of recruitment, a union can help.
Once again, the answer is and always will be – as if you needed to be reminded – tell the truth.
If you don’t, you have given your employer a good reason to dismiss you with immediate effect if and when they find out.
The government provide guidance here: https://www.gov.uk/rights-disabled-person/employment
Teacher unions provide advice about health and disability discrimination. Here’s one example: http://www.teachers.org.uk/node/9279
Government advice to employers on safer recruitment is at:
At this time of year I speak to thousands of students and trainees up and down the country who are starting their careers as teachers. It’s hugely enjoyable, fascinating and often quite inspiring.
Last week a new teacher training in a secondary school told me how her students had made some very challenging comments and asked some difficult questions about those responsible for the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich. She said she didn’t know how to answer without expressing her own opinions in ways that might lead to misunderstanding or sounding ‘unprofessional’ and even ‘intolerant’. She asked me for advice about how to deal with such issues.
I only wish I could have been more help.
Political violence and extremism is rarely out of the news these days and they present particular challenges for teachers trying to allay fears or address the concerns of children and students.
In recent decades the teaching profession – in my view proudly – has been at the forefront of promoting ‘multiculturalism’ including the religious tolerance and celebration of cultural diversity implied by that term. Now, and not just because of Woolwich, there are clear signs that ‘multiculturalism’ and all that it stands for, is on the defensive.
The Teachers‘ Standards in England (September 2012) state that teachers ‘must not undermine fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs‘.
All statements of values are problematic of course, and perhaps particularly so where teachers are grappling with the difficult task of integrating their own personal values with a set of professional values such as the Teachers’ Standards – as was the case with the hapless new teacher I met last week.
The coming together of personal and professional values – especially in a ‘liberal’ society such as ours – is usually a seamless integration of one with the other. Most teachers will look at the Teachers’ Standards and think they look more like ‘common sense’ than a professional code.
Occasionally though, there is a collision between the personal and the professional.
Some people will look at a term like ‘fundamental British values’ and wonder whether we all share the same definition of that term. Others will look at the phrase “tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs” and ask why merely ‘tolerate’, and not ‘celebrate’? Others – atheists or humanists perhaps – might suggest we should be challenging religious beliefs rather than tolerating them.
But I challenge you to ask yourself why should a teacher be professionally responsible for protecting (or “not undermining” as the Standards rather awkwardly put it) ‘individual liberty and mutual respect’.
Some parents’ culture (if not religious beliefs) view the teaching of science to females as undesirable. Should not teachers be actively undermining that particular notion of individual liberty?
Some teachers believe that ‘intelligent design‘ is a concept to be taught alongside Darwinian science. Should not all teachers be actively intolerant of such a view?
Some people in this country think burning books is a legitimate form of political protest. Should not teachers be actively disrespectful of such action and assert it as barbaric? – which in my view, it is.
A couple of years ago the General Pharmaceutical Council in the UK - the body charged with regulating the professional standards of pharmacists – allowed pharmacists with strong religious principles to refuse to sell or prescribe products (such as the ‘morning-after’ pill and contraceptives) if they felt that doing so would ‘contradict their beliefs’.
Should pharmacists be allowed to put their religious or moral principles before the needs of their clients?
If teaching allowed that, where would we be? If some of your colleagues held the strong religious belief that, for example ‘homosexuality is a sin’ or that ‘the earth was created in seven days’, might you not think twice about whether you could exercise ‘tolerance’ or ‘mutual respect’ at a peer-professional level, let alone a personal one?
And what if a colleague finds your political, sexual or religious beliefs - or your atheism for that matter – objectionable and abhorrent? Should they have the choice of not working with you?
I’m asking a lot of questions here… but here’s just one more…
Should teachers be a little more intolerant of those undermining the values of their profession?
Sometimes students and trainees ask me if having a criminal record is a bar to teaching. The answer – you may be surprised to learn – is usually no. But it depends what the conviction is.
A lot of people get worried that something as trivial as speeding points on your driving licence might be a problem – which of course it isn’t. If we barred every teacher who had a driving ban, let alone 3 points on their licence, we’d have a major crisis in teacher recruitment..!
However, teaching is exempt from the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 and as a teacher, you will be subject to ‘enhanced’ CRB checks. As most people already on teacher training courses have declared their previous criminal convictions and cautions (or should have..!) and have already had a Disclosure & Barring Service (DBS) check (formerly a CRB check) by the university or training provider – this should mean that they have been deemed ‘suitable to teach’ in accordance with DfE guidance.
Of course, candidates with very serious convictions – such as murder, robbery with violence, serious sexual assault, dealing in Class A drugs and any at all involving violence against children or vulnerable adults – would normally have been weeded out as ‘unsuitable’ at an initial DBS check.
Some though, even as serious as ‘manslaughter in self-defence’ – given the circumstances – might not necessarily be a reason for barring someone from acceptance on a teacher training course.
However, if you have a conviction or caution of any kind, what will be worrying you right now is how the schools that you are currently applying to will view your application.
Minor convictions are almost always not considered serious enough to deem a person unsuitable for teaching. If someone has been silly in their youth and has been convicted of drug possession, a minor burglary, theft of a car or from a store, a minor affray at a football match or political demonstration – they probably have no need to worry about it affecting their chances of becoming a teacher. Of course, any convictions that included violence against the person are taken very much more seriously – but still the circumstances and history of the offence would be the issue.
A trainee asked me recently whether a conviction for a domestic violence incident would count against him. It involved threatening his former wife with a knife when he was drunk and distraught more than a decade ago. He had declared it to the university but was worried now that he was applying to schools be a teacher. I suggested to him that most people have a very forgiving nature – given the circumstances. What I couldn’t guarantee was that every member, of every selection panel, of every school that he might apply to, will react so forgivingly to such an incident.
It is always difficult to know how people on interview panels will react to a given issue, especially where parent governors are present, as they invariably will be. It won’t help that currently, schools are likely to receive scores of applications for every post they advertise – so they can pick and choose in a ‘buyers’ market.
But do not completely despair – many people including head teachers and parent governors – do not view ‘a mis-spent youth’ as necessarily a bad thing. In my experience, some governors even think a little bit of ‘life experience’ equips someone to be a teacher in ways that help them relate more empathetically to pupils and students, particularly those demonstrating challenging behavior.
Depending on what the issue is, you may even be wise to bring it out in to the open at interview. Explaining to the panel how you mended the error of your ways and used the experience as a catalyst to make you a more reflective and mature person, might be seen as very positive. In my view, that approach is far better than leaving it as ‘the elephant in the room’.
As an ex-primary head, I employed a teacher on my staff that had an historic conviction for a drunken assault at a football match. He went on to become the most popular teacher in the school with both pupils and parents.
The point is – whatever the conviction or caution – declare it. If you don’t – that in itself is reason for summary dismissal.
If you want to know more about what might or might not be a conviction or caution deemed ‘unsuitable to be a teacher’, you can go to:
https://www.gov.uk/disclosure-barring-service-check for more information.
Alternatively, if you have joined a union as a trainee – and my advice is you should – then consult them. The NUT has a very useful fact sheet on this:
If you have a delicate question you want keep confidential, contact me through my Twitter handle @newteacherstalk or on through this blog. I’ll keep your comment private and help with advice if I can.