Teachers’ crimes and misdemeanours – should you reveal your ‘dirty secrets’?

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.


20 thoughts on “Teachers’ crimes and misdemeanours – should you reveal your ‘dirty secrets’?

  1. I think your advice to reveal past indiscretions still holds. No supervisor likes surprises of this nature. If they know before the hire, they are making a commitment to the person they hire, so that person is less likely to stand alone should past offenses come to public light.

    If the revelations to a prospective employer stop the hiring process in its tracks, perhaps that wasn’t the right job anyway.

    Dana Dunnan
    Author, Notes to a New Teacher

    1. Thanks Dana – I think you’re probably right but I’m getting worried about how illiberal and unforgiving society seems to be around relatively minor matters like this. Thanks for your wise comment.

      1. It is amazingly ironic that society is so illiberal and unforgiving, when media continually broadens the models for acceptable behavior.
        I was impressed by how thorough and well-reasoned your initial piece was. The technology that is accelerating all of our lives in a way that makes your reflections far too uncommon.

      2. That’s such an interesting point – thanks for making it. A young teacher I came across was told that she couldn’t be a lingerie model in her spare time as well as being a teacher – and yet Miley Cyrus defends her videos on the basis she is a Strong role model for young women”.

  2. Hello,

    I would first like to say that I have read both your articles surrounding this topic and now feel a bit confused as to what I should do about applying for my first job.

    I am graduating with my degree in primary teaching next month after four years with QTS. I have worked hard and spent six years working part time as a carer to support me through my education. I am 22 now and was given a police caution for possession of a class B drug when I was 19. It was a foolish one time mistake, and I was given a drugs test which came up clean.

    My current employer is aware of my past, and has allowed me to continue working in an environment, such as teaching, in which vulnerable people are within my duty of care.

    I am worried now, as a peer from my course seem to be securing themselves a job daily, and I can barley make myself look at them. Your article that I came across on the Guardian filled me with hope, whereas this one has me worried on how to approach applying for a job.

    So I was wondering what your position is on the subject now?
    How I should approach applying for a job?
    When should I declare my caution? For example, some application forms do not present an opportunity for applicants to declare anything.

    I refuse to give up on this career that I am passionate about and know I can do great things in.
    Any help would be appreciated.

    Thank you.

    1. hi Mathias,

      I’m not surprised you’re confused – they do seem to contradict each other! My “official” position is to declare everything, that is the professional thing to say and also the right and practical thing to say in serious cases of convictions and cautions – so I stand by that.

      On the other hand, a caution for possession of Class B which is historic, I wouldn’t declare unless they specifically ask. So if there’s no question on the application form, then don’t declare it. If they find out from a DBS check (unlikely in this case) then say you didn’t know you had to declare it.

      I know this doesn’t sound very professional but to be honest I have heard too many stories where employers are rejecting applications because someone has a got a caution for a minor offence and I think that is ridiculous.

      I hope that doesn’t confuse you even more..! Good Luck – and to be honest, don’t worry too much about not declaring a caution for possession of Class B – it won’t end your career.

  3. Hi Alan,

    I’m in a peculiar situation as I’ve been teaching for ten years. Recently I was arrested for assualt GBH and released no further action taken because the whole incident was the result of a drunken accident and overzealous police – there was no intent. Why I had to be arrested when they were told by both of us at the time that the injury was an accident is beyond me. Anyway, before this happened I accepted a post which I start in January. Obviously the enhanced DBS check will be conducted before I start. Do I disclose this non-conviction arrest? The DBS said it won’t show up on the certificate when I called them – only cautions and convictions, unless the local police decide to disclose it if they feel it relevant. I am in agony over this as I have already handed in my notice at my current school and will be devastated if the job offer is withdrawn. What should I do? I don’t want to be judged or stigmatised because of something I did not do and start off on the wrong foot, and I certainly don’t want to lose this job – which is a promotion for me!
    Thanks in advance for your help. .

    1. Dear Mike, please accept my apologies for the very delayed reply – I’ve been away on holiday with no internet access.

      You have nothing to worry about here I am sure. First of all, if the circumstances are as you described them and you were not charged, cautioned or convicted – there won’t be any record at DBS. Secondly, because you were not charged, cautioned or convicted, you have nothing to declare to anyone. It is essentially a private matter which is nobody else’s business.

      Good Luck with your new job and once again, sorry for the long delay in replying.


      1. You are kind to reply, thank you. I’ve done a lot of research and it won’t be flagged up by the DBS, but local police could disclose it if they feel it is relevant to the post applied for. So all I’m hoping is that the police chief sees that I was released with no further action, and the statement given at the time by both of us was that it was an accident, and I can put this whole unpleasant episode behind me! Thank you for taking the time to reply and for the wishes.

      2. Mike, if it is any more re-assurance, from my experience at working at the General Teaching Council where we received referrals from the police, the chances of the local police referring this to your employer are virtually nil – unless you have a particularly moralistic and vindictive police chief… which I hope not..!

      3. Haha, yeah here’s hoping! I have also written to the police chief asking that the arrest record be removed because the offence for which I was arrested no longer exists. They have an exceptional case procedure for this, or I’m stuck with the arrest next to my name until I’m 100. Still haven’t heard back from him so not holding out much hope. In fact, I also haven’t heard from my MP when I wrote asking him what rights people who are innocent have in getting an arrest record deleted. If they get rid of fingerprints and DNA of innocent people, why not the arrest record too? It is something that warrants attention as the police have the power to arrest if they have any suspicion that something unlawful has occurred, but if you’re innocent you have that record for life. Doesn’t seem fair. The Ashya King story is also an example of arrest first, ask questions later. Arrests are for life and that doesn’t seem right if you’re innocent and reliant on a clean slate to get jobs in the teaching profession.

  4. Hi,

    I have a question regarding DBS, 2 years ago following a pretty nasty break up my ex and the lady he was cheating on me with began a campaign of harassment against me. I eventually retaliated and sent a stream of text messages that I am not proud of.
    My ex has since informed me in the last week (since he has discovered I have offered a teaching job) that his girl friend called the police at the time and told them I was threatening her and her child by text which is untrue. He claims she decided not to press charges .
    I was never contacted by the police over this. My question would be is this something that would show under other information on an enhanced DBS even though I was never spoken to?


    1. Hi Sarah Jane,

      if the circumstances are as you describe them, then you have nothing to worry about. One of the great things about being British (and we are celebrating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta this June) is that it established that you cannot be charged or convicted for a crime without your knowledge – we call it Habeas Corpus – so unless the police charged you and you appeared in front of a court, then you have no criminal record and these people would not have access to that knowledge as ‘mere’ members of the public.

      If the police ‘cautioned’ you (which means you accepted culpability but the police did not take it further) then it would appear on your DBS check but only prospective employers have access to that ‘enhanced’ disclosure, not members of the public.

      It seems to me that they are just being very nasty to you. Even if they told the police, the police would not do anything about it. If a university has deemed fit to train you and a school has deemed fit to employ you, you have nothing to worry about from a couple of bitter and twisted people who sound as if they have not come to terms with a conflict that is now in the past.

      Good Luck with your career in teaching.

      1. Hi Alan,

        I wrote to you a few months ago – my post is above under the name of Mike. Thought I’d let you know that my request for early deletion of my arrest was granted! The PNC record, my fingerprints, DNA and CSIS images were all deleted from the system! This is very rare I believe. It was clear to me after I did a subject access request that even the investigating officer was at a loss as to how I was arrested in the first place when it quite clearly was an accident and not a ‘glassing’ supported by witness statements given at the time – in fact, I was the victim of assault; I was defending myself against someone who was attacking me, and pushed him to the ground onto glass. They arrested the wrong person!

        The process took about 6 months and I was utterly elated when the letter came in the post. Fortunately, the DBS check came back clear before the request for early deletion was granted, so I was able to start my awesome job without having to dispute a DBS and start off on the wrong foot at my new school.

        I am so lucky to be rid of this unpleasant arrest record and that it didn’t cost me my job! I can’t tell you how awful those few weeks were waiting for the DBS check to come through!

      2. Hi Mike,

        I am very pleased everything turned out well for you and I think you deserve a lot of credit for pursuing this issue to a satisfactory conclusion – well done and good luck with your career.

  5. Hi

    I have just done something incredibly silly and sent my ex a string of abusive texts after having had years of problems seeing my son.

    She called the police who gave me a police information warning of harassment.

    Apparently this could show up on an enhanced dbs.

    Its not a conviction or caution and would appear under other information.

    A) do I declare to my current head

    B) how do you think this will be viewed in future?

    1. Hi,

      my understanding is that such a warning would not be visible through an enhanced DBS check unless the abuse was of a sexual nature or it threatened the safety of children. If that is the case, then the school may review its contract of employment with you and my advice would be to seek the counsel of a solicitor or your union.

      If that is not the case, then only cautions and convictions will show up on your DBS check. Also, and only if that is the case, you do not need to declare this to your Head – it is essentially a misdemeanour that you have not been either cautioned or convicted for.

      As to how it will be viewed in the future… my advice is to keep your private life private. If this matter is one where you lost your temper a few times with your ex-wife and blasted off a few hot-headed text messages out of frustration about access or custody – that will be viewed empathetically I think and it will be viewed as an essentially private not a professional matter.

      However, as I indicated – if the text messages were threatening violence or sexual violence or threatened the safety of your son, then I would be surprised if any school would employ you in the future and as I said, your school may seek to review its contract with you.

      If you are a member of a union, talk to them.

      1. Thank you. No threats of violence or threats of a sexual nature. Just hot headed blowing off steam in a fit of temper after years of frustration. Thank you for your response.

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