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, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with 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 or book him as a speaker to your ITT students. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.

Watch one of Alan’s sessions: Exploring personal and professional boundaries


14 thoughts on “What’s the problem with ‘inappropriate relationships’?

  1. The Jeremy Forrest case has left me feeling very uncomfortable. I agree that “vulnerability runs in both directions” and he did not strike me as a sexual groomer, more an unhappy young man. While he undoubtedly did wrong, he should not be demonised. I have been teaching a long time and have seen examples of predatory behaviour and also of confused and vulnerable young men having problems with boundaries. I remember one case of a relationship started after the girl turned 16 and had left the school but which would not have begun if he hadn’t been her teacher. That was more 30 years ago and the staff knew about it and while we may not have approved, it would be viewed very much more negatively now.

    1. Thanks for that apf. I agree that demonising Forrest serves only to make the situation worse and almost certainly intensifies the guilt felt by the student. Thanks for your post.

  2. While I think there definitely going to be teachers who have abusive sexual relationships with students, I think it is so wrong for any relationship, regardless of how loving it is, is condemned. I can’t fathom how we have such a fixed, beaucratic system where cases aren’t looked upon invidivually but everyone suffers under one umbrella law! There are many cases of students and teachers falling in love, getting married and having children. Is that sick and wrong? Age is just a number. I am 21 and my boyfriend of 11 months is 45. And some days I act and feel like I’m 15 – 16 again! And other days I feel as old as he is.
    Each case is different and should be treated as such. Obviously if a teacher is preying on vulnerable girls they should be dealt with accordingly and suspended, but how can you punish people for falling in love?

    1. Thanks for that Shae. I agree with you that each case is different and should be taken on its merits (or de-merits). In this case, it seems to me that Forrest has been made an example of because he is a teacher. While I quite agree that teachers should be upheld to a higher standard in their professional accountability, I think the law should treat everyone equally. One only need compare the sentence Stuart hall received for the sexual assault and rape of very young children to see the, in my view, injustice of the sentence Forrest received. Thanks again for your post.

    2. I’m sorry but there is a LOT of rubbish being talked about the Forrest case, and I’ve done some mythbusting here, which I would encourage anyone commenting on the case to read.

      Forrest repeatedly and deliberately deceived the girl, her family, his colleagues and his wife. He lied on numerous occasions about the nature of his relationship. Even now, there’s reports emerging of other teenage girls who he made advances towards, not to mention a police investigation into whether the girl has been coached into changing her story in court.

      The judge’s sentencing remarks are horrifying. There was a long, long list of aggravating factors and almost nothing in mitigation, and Forrest richly deserved his prison sentence.

  3. Very difficult case which encourages such polarized and passionate opinions.

    The judiciary have not only to adjudicate but to provide powerful messages to the profession and the nation that there are non negotiable rules to protect children. In this case many factors appear to have sealed the defendants fate with a substantial prison term. It is a tragic story that appears to show how two apparently unhappy individuals ended up bonded in what has turned into something catastrophic with huge impact on the future and their respective families. I believe that in such circumstances people rarely make the best judgements and in the natural desire for human interaction and comfort can make serious errors.

    I worked as a legal assistant in a solicitors and ended up living long term with one of my clients. No under age issues there, but in theory one could suggest I ‘groomed’ my ‘divorced’ or ‘lonely’ client. My bosses knew and accepted the situation. But surely, my client base ought not have amounted to my own personal dating database ? So I know from personal experience that professional boundaries must often be breached because when attraction strikes what do people do ? They more often than not are drawn like magnets.

    The law is different of course for under 16’s. There is a line and no get out of jail free card for those who stray. To my mind even if the age of consent was 15 rather than 16 then it should still be entirely prohibited as a professional rule for a teacher to have a relationship with their high school pupil because the danger of exploitation exists by virtue of the relationship itself and isn’t negated by attaining the magical age of consent. The pupils are by virtue of youth and inexperience hugely vulnerable, it is a challenging time for them hormonally, socially, etc and the last thing they need is to be involved with their teachers. There are a few heart warming exceptions where such liasons have not imploded and have endured and flourished but these are not a basis to relax the rules.

    1. Thanks very much for that honest and frank account – and I think you raise some really important additional issues, especially about other professions – so thanks for that. I totally agree that professional – client relationships are based on trust and not only the involved parties expect that, but the public at large do too.

      When transgressions happen and especially if, like in this case, they are non-violent and ‘consensual’, then in my view the appropriate response is counselling, support and advice to both parties – even though it is a criminal matter. I agree that his behaviour has made him ineligible to teach but making an example of the teacher through a lengthy punitive sentence will only serve to intensify the emotional damage and the feelings of guilt felt by the student.

      Thanks again for your very honest post.

  4. I don’t believe that vulnerability should run in both directions. Surely as part of teacher training this issue is given a forum? Surely, the teachers understand that they have a responsibility for their behaviour and will have a one sided influence on their pupils?

    How is it that the Catholic church gets regularly slated (and quite rightly) for the same breach of trust and responsibility and yet when a teacher does it we get these sort of ambiguous statements that bypass the position of trust and authority that teachers are in.

    Doctors and counsellors can be struck off for having affairs with patients for very good reasons – so why this debate about teachers. Are they a special case? Are they especially placed to be tempted. I don’t think so. They have to work at isolating pupils and then grooming them. It’s no sudden temptation that they fall into on a one-off occasion, it takes time, effort and planning and then a good cover up alibi. So let’s not waste too many tears over the ones that get caught.

    1. Thanks for that Peter. I’m afraid that most teacher training courses don’t deal with these issues in great depth and rarely provide any formal training – though of course there are clear references to ‘inappropriate relationships’ and ‘maintaining boundaries’ in the Teachers’ Standards (the equivalent of a Code of Conduct and Practice).

      While I accept that such behaviour is unprofessional and illegal and therefore totally wrong – my point is whether the best interests of both the student, let alone the teacher, are served by a punitive, exemplary sentence. I am struck for example, that Jeremy Forrest has already spent nine months in custody and denied bail. Even some people on murder charges are allowed bail.

      I would agree with you that where teachers or other trusted adults have been predatory, manipulative, threatening or violent the book should be thrown at them – but in this case Forrest seems to me to have been a rather sad, lonely, unhappy and therefore ‘vulnerable’ person himself and his colleagues should have been counselling him and suspending him as the warning signs appeared. The same effort should have gone in to protecting the student. The way this has been dealt with, in my view, serves only to damage both people – perhaps irreparably.

      Thanks again for your post.

  5. The opening paragraph to this article is very much accurate. There has been a paradigm shift so far as child protection is concerned. My mother, a child of the late ’60’s and early ’70’s doesn’t see Forrest as the monster the media have portrayed him. This is because their relationship is (the present tense being correct as per the latest articles quoting the girl) consensual – their sex before she turned 16, the same. (I use ‘consensual’ in the non-legal sense; I appreciate that legally a 15 year ‘cannot consent’ to sex but outside of the legal profession this term is meaningless. I’d argue the same about the use of ‘abduction’. Indeed, if a 15 year old child ‘cannot consent’ to sex, isn’t a 16 year old boy having sex with a 15 year old girl (or vice-versa) also abusing the younger? I’d say not – children aren’t robots until their once dormant self becomes aware at 16.)

    My mother’s opinion on Forrest stands in strong contrast to her condemnation of her old headmaster, someone who routinely groped his student’s breasts. The difference being that here there is no consent. Of course there are surely people of my mother’s generation who completely disagree, and think that Forrest’s action’s stand in complete defiance of morality. But I trust my mother’s re-telling of her times. She speaks of a different culture than that of today.

    The age of consent, as the article points out, is no longer legally the ‘get out of jail free card’ that some unscrupulous teachers might have considered it before 2003. It’s reasonable to speculate that most, surely, consider this a positive development.

    But what about my friend from London? At 17, just after the legal change, he shared a consensual ‘fling’ with his 30-something year old college teacher. This was sex for it’s animal sake. Meaningless. Devoid of emotion. I speak to him now at 26, and he feels no anger. No guilt. No regret. He enjoyed it as much as his teacher did. Do I feel his relationship was appropriate? No, I don’t. But do I view him as a victim of child abuse? My answer again is no. And his parents, aware of what was happening, didn’t see him as abused either. Does that make his parents by default, bad? Certainly not! There is so much emotive language thrown about when it comes to child protection, from so many people who know nothing about the individuals concerned. My friend’s father grew up in what would be considered a ‘bad’, poor, deprived area and pulled himself up out of the gutter to become a GP. He now lives in a different ‘bad’, poor, deprived area and has the means to leave but doesn’t. He feels the people there need him. I consider my friend’s father the archetype of an honourable man. I am not quite as free-thinking as my friend’s parents, or indeed my mother, but for me, this debate has many more grey areas than some believe.

    Another relevant anecdote is a young man I once studied with in the West Midlands (let’s call him Jerry). For reasons still unknown to me, not too long after first speaking to him, he disclosed that he had recently been in a relationship with a 15 year old girl. He was in his early twenties at the time of the relationship. The girl entirely consented to it. And so did the girl’s parents. The girl spoke about it in school, a teacher overheard, the teacher reported it to the authorities and so his troubles began…

    But this young man is a good man. Why do I think that? Because of another story he told me. He once witnessed a man beat his girlfriend up (let’s call the girlfriend, Lucy). The attacker had a well known violent reputation. As did the attacker’s family. This all happened before Jerry had begun dating the 15 year old. Several people witnessed the attack on Lucy, but no one would come forward to the police because of the repercussions. No one except Jerry. The attacker was arrested as a result. The attacker then threatened his girlfriend with further violence. She told him Jerry was the ‘grass’. The attacker caught up with Jerry, and beat him a coma. Jerry was in a coma for months. There are no questions over his story – it was featured in the media – he pointed me to online articles – and he has a scar on his stomach from where the hospital fed him through a tube.

    Now who would I want as my neighbour? If I had to chose, I’d chose Jerry who’d had the relationship with the 15 year old girl, not his attacker who hadn’t. Even if I had children. Yet the media would have us believe that Jerry’s crimes are the worst kind of evil there is, with no shade of grey. But to me, Jerry from the West Midlands represents a shade of grey. To me, the 20 year old girl in the violent, abusive relationship with her boyfriend of the same age, is much more the victim than the 15 year old girl with her twenty-something year old boyfriend.

    Another consideration for this debate is that the age of consent is entirely cultural. In Germany, it stands at 14. A 20 year old man can have sexual relations with a 14 year old girl. So can a 35 year old, a 42 year old, and so on, and so on. Yet in my estimation, Germany is not socially or morally corrupt because of this. What about France, just over the channel, where the age of consent is 15? (Forrest was extradited from France on abduction charges, but not for sexual offences.) What about Ireland where the age of consent is 17? Perhaps there are people in a Dublin pub right now, sipping a drink, speaking about how sick we are to have legalised underage sex…’underage sex’, as they might see it. ‘Don’t be stupid, they’re not going to see it as underage’ you might say. But what did you think when you read that Germany’s age of consent is 14? Didn’t that still ‘seem’ like underage sex to you? Despite being legal.

    I returned to college several times in my mid twenties to gain further qualifications in hope of a career change that never happened. As a result, I have met and spoke to many more 16-19 year olds than most people my age typically would. Three or four students I became quite close to. I went to two different colleges, in two different towns, in two different regions. I can tell you quite categorically two things. One is that underage girls having sex with men in their late teens and twenties (particularly early twenties) is not at all uncommon. I don’t doubt this exists only for the minority. But they are a minority that is most definitely there. I have heard this story more times than I care to count. This included a girl who, by her own admission, become pregnant and aborted the child at 13 (yes, 13!) At 15 and 16, her mother was happy for her talk to, befriend and even date men in their late teens and twenties. Given what dating someone her own age had resulted in, I do empathise. Young men are less likely to take a careless attitude to birth control than many 15 year old boys surely do. The girl’s mother certainly hadn’t found a suitable solution, but the daughter’s trauma of abortion at 13 had presumably shaped the mother’s outlook, and who would I be to tell a mother of three children that she is wrong, and that I know better? You might say that she shouldn’t have got pregnant in the first place. True. But with even the best will in the world, you can’t watch over and control your children 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, can you? Sure, you can go mad at your daughter when they tell you they’re pregnant. But that’s too late. They’re already pregnant. Children from Cornwall to Kent, and all the way up to the tip of Scotland are subjected to mass sexualisation of pretty much everything. All of Britain’s nearly 63 million people live and die to make money. Sex sells, so sex and money have become deeply entwined. If you have children, they are going to have sex. And they will probably start before you did.

    What girls and boys can be subjected to by people of their own age, through carelessness or malice, rarely seems to enter discussion here. My final anecdote is of a young girl robbed in the street by someone of her own age. Masked, the robber demanded her mobile phone. And frightened, she gave it up. Less than 24 hours later, the same boy was in bed receiving oral sex from her. The girl had a lose reputation and he took advantage of it, inviting her round his house for sex. She didn’t know this same boy had robbed her the day before, due to his disguise. This is speculation, but I can imagine this gave him something ‘big’ to boast about to his peers. Many girls are being exploited by people their own age, months or even years before their future boyfriend of 21 will get anywhere near them.

    These anecdotes might seem extreme to you. To me too, they are. But it’s what happens out there. All the anecdotes in this post, bar the one of my friend from London, are from low crime, low population areas. At least one concerns a girl living in a picture perfect village of less than 900 people. A three figure population in the South-West. We’re not talking about a densely populated, deprived borough of Inner London here. If you have children and find these stories unbelievable then quite possibly you have no idea what young people are surrounded by. Since all of these stories, bar the final, were given to my by the person I question, I have no reason to doubt their truth. You wouldn’t confide in someone that you’d had an abortion at 13 unless you had. And the 16-19 year olds who told me these stories were all honest seeming people. Their age certainly doesn’t cast doubt on their integrity. Indeed, some of the evidence in the Forrest trial came from a school friend of the girl.

    My opinion is that Forrest is absolutely unfit to teach and should be banned from this profession for life. Revelations that he attempted – unsuccessfully – with other girls, what he achieved with his current young lover only reinforce this.

    The girl does not believe that her relationship is inappropriate (and as a matter of fact, her father holds no animosity towards Forrest). She very eloquently expressed her feelings to The Sun. Many have commented that this is nonsense saying she is too young to understand her feelings. I think there needs to be a separation of the two statements here. Yes, it is nonsense to say that it is appropriate for a 15 year old student to have a relationship with their teacher. But people who claim she cannot understand her feelings are commenting on a girl they do not know personally. I’m sure that the majority of 15 year olds do not understand their feelings. But I’m also sure that there are also some who do. At 15, I was certainly fully conscious of my actions and feel I understood my emotions.

    This girl faced both her friend’s disapproval and her mother’s fire. If the girl’s mother is making public statements that the daughter she knew is dead, I can only imagine the things that might have been said behind closed doors. In addition to all this, there was the legal process. Then the venomous media frenzy that tailed the story both last year and this, the more recent condemning Forrest as a “creep” and a “paedophile”.

    Disapproving family members alone can break an adult relationship apart. Never mind the added factors of a media circus, and a court case. How can we belittle this girl and tell her that her feelings are merely infatuation? So what if she is wrong about waiting for him, and finds that in two years her feelings are all but gone? How many of her critics are on their second marriage? How many divorced their first partner after 18 months? Perhaps they weren’t really in love. Their failed marriage the result of a mere childish infatuation, perhaps. We are judging this girl by superhuman standards. Her lover is in prison for five and half years. If her feelings weaken before 2019, I can’t say I’d be surprised. Wouldn’t that generally be considered a possibility, even for a grown woman?

    The irony in this case is that the actions of those trying to protect the girl and all which followed have caused her current distress, not the inappropriate nature of her relationship. It seems that Forrest’s trial is a show trial with an exaggerated sentence. Notable for me, is that Stuart Hall received just 18 months for his crimes. Even given his age, this seems unfair. One rape of a 22 year old woman, and 13 indecent assaults on children as young as nine.

    To summarise, I completely condemn Forrest’s actions. The absolute best thing that can happen for the girl is that she moves on from Forrest. This would likely be a long, emotional process but it can happen, I’m sure. I honestly believe she is gold. The insurmountable problem is that her boyfriend is not. I believe once she turns 18, he’ll no longer be interested in her anyway. Or perhaps she will wait for him. And perhaps I am wrong in my suspicions, and he will continue to love her as an adult (presumably at one point he loved his wife?) Maybe he’ll leave prison, they’ll write a book together, become rich, and sail off into the sunset together. By this time she’ll be in her early twenties (assuming he serves his full sentence). We can speculate all we like. Only time will reveal the future held for these two catastrophically connected individuals…

  6. Silver River Productions is producing a new history series for Channel 4 that will tell the story of social change in Britain over the past 40 years through the eyes of four different professions. It’s history told from the perspective of the people who lived through it giving us a personal, human insight into social changes we’ve all taken for granted.

    Drawing on the testimonies of teachers this episode of the series will reveal how different the recent past was to education today and, through retired professionals’ accounts, explore themes that are relevant to us all such as respect for authority and social mobility.
    One theme we are interested in exploring is the changing attitude to romantic relationships between teachers and pupils over the age of 16 from 1970s to the modern day, looking at how society’s view of child autonomy has changed over time.

    If you have a personal story or an opinion on this sensitive subject or would like to find out more, please do contact Zehra in the strictest confidence on 020 7907 3469 or email zehra.yas@silverriver.tv with no obligation to take part.

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