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.
Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer 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 March 2014.