Can we laugh at the Prophet Muhammad, the Holocaust or 9/11? Discuss and debate.


The government want teachers to ‘promote British values’ but teachers are understandably nervous about tackling issues of extremism. However, extremist views present fantastic opportunities for teachers to address a whole range of serious moral, political, social and religious questions.

When I was at school (a large comprehensive in a working class area of Liverpool) the teachers established a wonderful debating society. Topics included apartheid South Africa, immigration, women’s equality, abortion – nothing seemed off limits.

It is perhaps inevitable that people will feel intimidated in our current climate – if not by the potential threat of violence, however remote – but by the sheer complexity of the issues and the possibility that teachers will seriously upset some pupils or cause offence.

This is where ‘rules’ come in handy. Having a formal discussion or debate with rules – about who speaks first; what facts and evidence they can provide to back up their argument; how, when and where that argument can be challenged; when questions can be asked and by whom – provides a rule-governed environment enabling confidence and security.

Schools are required to provide a Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural curriculum as part of the National Curriculum. In my view, it’s also part of the professional duty of teachers to teach children to discuss and consider complex, even extreme issues and debate them with others – especially those they fundamentally disagree with.

Children should learn that ‘causing offence’ should, on the one hand, be avoided as part of our moral and social responsibility to get on with each other. But on the other hand, it should be seen as part of democratic discourse and a legitimate way to challenge over-bearing authority and tyrannical abuse. Doing so may one day protect or liberate them.

They will learn the scope and limits of ‘free speech’ too. We do not have unlimited free speech, nor should we. We all need and expect the protection of the law from verbal threats, abuse and incitement to violence.

When I was a primary classroom teacher I overheard a pupil telling a racist joke. I didn’t ‘tell the child off’ immediately but sometime later set up a discussion in class to discuss and debate what assumptions and attitudes were behind the ‘joke’.

When I later trained teachers, this was also my advice to new teachers too – not to heavy-handedly suppress racist comment, opinion or ‘jokes’ but use the classroom as a platform to challenge such assumptions in a more reflective and ‘teacherly’ way. It was a controversial approach because some people thought I was also giving a platform to racist abuse. I wasn’t.

I made a clear distinction between the ‘free speech’ of offensive, extreme and even racist opinion on the one hand and abusive and threatening language on the other. I told the kids that the latter was banned in my classroom – for the protection of us all – and they understood that, even at age ten and eleven. But I also wanted them to reflect and consider what they think, say and believe – particularly when such views are expressed as ‘jokes’.

Humour has a unique characteristic in that while it is intended to make us laugh, it is often based on causing some kind of offence. “What can we, or can’t we, laugh at?” That’s a great topic for discussion and debate in schools. But I think many of us are shying away from providing such opportunities to students in these increasingly sensitive times. We shouldn’t. Setting up a debating club or society can give us the confidence to tackle sensitive issues.

I have heard a Jew make a joke about the Holocaust. I heard a New Yorker make a joke about 9/11 the very day after it happened. Quite recently, I have also heard Muslims make jokes about burkhas.

Personally, I can’t conceive telling a joke about things like the Holocaust, 9/11 or burkhas – but to be completely honest with you, I laughed at all three jokes when I heard them. I accept that laughing along with someone or at ourselves is one thing while laughing at others requires a slightly different set of rules.

I defend the right of those people to tell those arguably tasteless and offensive jokes but just because we have a right to laugh at someone doesn’t mean it is right to do it.

Recently I was with a group of trainee teachers discussing “fundamental British values” as part of the Teachers’ Standards. Many of the British trainees said they didn’t really know what British values were. But an Italian student in the group (living and training in the UK) said she thought “British humour was a reflection of British values”. When I asked her to explain what she meant she said: “The British always seem to be laughing at themselves – their pomposity, their snobbery and their own social class divisions. We don’t laugh at stuff like that in Italy, at least not in the same way. I think what a society chooses to laugh at is a reflection of its values. It tells us a lot about ourselves and the way we relate to each other.” (I think she was paying the British a compliment.)

So to return to what is implied by my initial question. What can we – and can’t we – laugh at? This is an urgent topic for discussion and debate in schools – along with a thousand other urgent and compelling issues.

I therefore propose a motion: “That this House believes every school should have a Debating Society (and a Joke Club too).”

All those in favour, say “Aye!”

If you would like to set up a debating club or society in your school, The English Speaking Union has an excellent resource: “Ten tips for setting up a Debating Club”.

http://www.esu.org/programmes/schools/secondary-schools/e-classroom/resources-for-students-and-teachers/ten-tips-for-setting-up-a-debating-club

 

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 and book him for a talk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.

 

What are British values? Don’t ask the British!


I talk to a lot of new and trainee teachers up and down the country. When we get on to discussing the Teachers’ Standards, invariably at least one person will ask: “What are fundamental British values?” So I put question back to the audience.

In most cases, the teachers I come across have not the faintest idea.

Even when I prompt them a bit with a helpful reference to the actual section of the Teachers’ Standards where it says: “Democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs” – many will even contest that these are exclusively British values, and say things like: “Surely these are universal? They’re found in most countries, not just Britain?”

I sometimes reply – respectfully of course – that they should get out a bit more. If they were to travel the world, they would soon find out that most people in most countries do not necessarily assume ownership of such values nor take for granted the rights associated with them.

So I’ll prompt a little further with my audience… “How about trial by jury… the presumption of innocence… Habeas Corpus… surely these are principles that the British played a founding role influencing legal systems around the world?”

But I can see my audiences are not yet convinced.

I continue: “Then what about things like fair play… cricket and all that… our apparent enthusiasm for queuing… saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ a lot… cheering for the underdog… starting conversations with the weather… being the first to apologize when someone steps on your toe…? Doesn’t that show how nice we are?” But then people think I’m being trivial. I’m not.

But some reply: “They may be British but they’re hardly fundamental values.”

So I try again and suggest some things that have been fundamental to shaping our history – “How about Magna Carta… the defeat of the Spanish Armada… the Battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo… the British Empire, for both good and bad… slavery and its abolition… the Industrial Revolution… Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain… the establishment of the National Health Service?” I ask: “Doesn’t our history reflect various aspects of British values?”

But still people argue with me. “Every country has proud and shameful events in their history. Why should Britain think it’s any different?”

I say “It doesn’t mean we are necessarily better, but we are different.” So I press on (being ever the optimist) and suggest that perhaps our values are reflected in our unique artistic and cultural heritage? “What about the novels of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Tolkien or even JK Rowling, the paintings of Turner and Hockney, the plays of Shakespeare, the music of The Beatles, the mission of the BBC, the Edinburgh Fringe, Glastonbury…?”

I’m fighting a losing battle, I can see. I continue to try to convince my confused audiences how the British global reputation for science is surely a reflection of fundamental values: “The Laws of Newton… Darwin’s Origin of Species… the discovery of penicillin and DNA…?”

Now I sound like I’m pleading with them.

Finally, in sheer desperation, I reel off my personal favourites: “Then what about fish and chips, a nice cup of tea, a pint in the pub…!” but all to no avail.

It is very striking how most British people in my audiences offer much of an answer as to what fundamental British values are or how they are reflected in our history, law, science, artistic heritage or even our popular culture.

When there are foreigners in the audience. It’s a different story.

Recently, I was in Liverpool and a Bulgarian student there was the first to pipe up when I asked the question. “I have lived in nearly all the countries of Europe” she said, “but it is only in Britain where I feel most respected as a woman.”

I was in St Albans, a trainee from Holland said: “Britain is incredibly tolerant of other religions. That’s not true everywhere in Europe. Even where I come from in Holland if you’re not a Christian of a protestant denomination, you are a little bit suspect. Here in Britain nobody seems to mind what religion you believe in.”

In east London, a Nigerian man said: “In my country there is so much corruption. If you want to avoid a fine, get a visa or planning permission you just pay a police officer or a government official. British people think the MPs expenses scandal was big corruption. That was nothing compared to what happens in many countries.”

Reflecting on the observations of foreigners makes an interesting contrast, but we need to feel to feel confident that we are teaching the values society expects us to promote, not just the skills and knowledge needed by industry and commerce.

Make a list of all the activities your school does under the umbrella of the Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural (SMSC) curriculum – it will include a whole range of things like: recognizing and celebrating religious and cultural festivals, local, national and international events and anniversaries; visits to places of worship, museums, art galleries, concert halls, theatres, castles, town halls, courts, Parliament, the local fire station; arranging visits by local councilors, MPs, lawyers, religious leaders; involving pupils and students in array of school activities, clubs and societies like formulating the school’s Behaviour policy, Golden Rules, ‘Anti-Bullying Week’, playground buddies, staff selection, elections for school councils; organizing a Circle Time, a debating society and myriad other social, sports and cultural clubs. Even if you’re a small primary school, the list will probably include forty or fifty such activities.

You will realise that many if not all, of the activities you have identified that are currently being done in your school already contribute to promoting fundamental ‘British’ values – such as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance. You will also see where you have gaps both in your SMSC curriculum and in the promotion of ‘fundamental British values’. Perhaps it will inspire you to take forward new ideas for your class and your school. Best of all, it will give you the confidence that you actually know what ‘fundamental British values’ are after all and that you can go in to school tomorrow and teach them!

If you would like to develop your knowledge and skills around teaching values, British or otherwise, you can get help at:

Parliament Education Service    parliament.uk  Includes tours of Parliament and resources for all key stages

The Citizenship Foundation    citizenshipfoundation.org.uk

Lawyers in Schools    lawyersinschools.org.uk   Free school visits from lawyers and resources to promote legal and justice issues – mainly KS2 up

Giving Nation    g-nation.org.uk   Resources for volunteering

Go Givers    gogivers.org   Resources for volunteering

Paying for it    payingforit.org.uk   Resources for financial budgeting

National Centre for Citizenship and the Law   nccl.org.uk  Aims to increase understanding of career opportunities in the legal profession, different types of courts and how they work, stage ‘mock’ trials and encourage an interest in the law.

Teachit Citizenship     teachitcitizenship.co.uk

The Philosophy Foundation     philosophy-foundation.org

Youth for Human Rights     youthforhumanrights.org

Amnesty International    amnesty.org

The British Library – Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy     bl.uk/magna-carta    Free workshops and resources

 

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 General Teaching Council. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.

You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk and book him for a session.

His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.

“I’ll never forget that…” What education can do.


Over twenty-five years ago I taught a class of thirty ten-year old primary school children about the Holocaust. I didn’t mean to. It just happened. It was an accident, I promise you.

I was teaching English (or Language as we called it those days) to my Year 6 class and we were doing something on ‘diaries’ – keeping them, reading them, famous diaries etc. I read some examples like Samuel Pepys and of course, The Diary of Anne Frank.

“Wait a minute…” some of the kids said, “this sounds interesting. Can we have a bit more?”

I ended up reading from it every day. They were captivated. I decided to turn it in to a ‘project’ – though some of my colleagues doubted the suitability and appropriateness of the topic for the age group. We wrote letters to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam to find out more, we read books about her life from those who knew her, we read about the persecution of the Jews and others by the Nazis, we studied the history of the Second World War and the geography of Europe during the war and in modern times, we built an accurate and detailed scale model of the famous attic in which she and her family hid, we wrote letters to her as if she were a friend, poems dedicated to her, a play about her.

I asked some Holocaust survivors of my acquaintance – a couple from Vienna who came to Britain as children alone on the ‘Kinder transport’ and who later married and brought up a family in London – to come and talk about their experiences of anti-Semitism at school and escaping the Nazis after Kristallnacht. The (then fledging) Holocaust Educational Trust offered us some photographs, artifacts and display material suitable for primary age children, so we staged an exhibition and invited the local community.

Then I discovered that Anne Frank’s step-sister Eva Schloss actually lived in north London. Eva had been a neighbour and school friend of Anne Frank whose mother married the widowed Otto Frank after the war. We invited her to come and speak to the children and we made a video of her visit.

We even spent a whole night cooped up in an attic (at the very top of a rather creepy Victorian church hall in Hackney), sleeping on the floor in flimsy sleeping bags with only water and no food, with no-one allowed to go to the toilet until it had gone dark (it was June 1989, so it was late) and even more challenging, no-one was allowed to speak. The kids had to read books or play chess and draughts in silence for the whole evening until they finally fell asleep.

The only break in the silence was when I arranged for the school-keeper to make an unannounced visit at eleven o’clock at night, as the kids had (mostly) fallen asleep. He (under my instruction) stomped up the stone steps of the attic stairwell in heavy hob-nail boots, rattled the heavy wooden door, then banged on it loudly and shouted “Come out! Come out! Anne Frank! Are you in there? Come out!”

Of course, the kids were terrified – really, genuinely, very terrified – and I allowed the terror to sink in for a minute before I opened the door and they saw it was the benign and friendly school-keeper whom they all knew well.

The project culminated a few weeks later when we visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and saw for ourselves what she had really gone through. That night at the youth hostel we were staying in just outside of Amsterdam, one of the kids in the class wrote in her diary: “Today I walked in the foot-steps of Anne Frank.”

As a teacher you will often doubt the effectiveness of your teaching – its methods, style and content. You will get frustrated at kids who seem to value so little of what you are trying to do – whether it’s the knowledge you are trying to convey, the skills you are trying to develop or the personal and social values you are trying to engender in them. You will wonder sometimes whether anything you teach has any lasting value or affect. Try not to let these feelings overwhelm you – because with all education and especially with primary education – the real value of it is rarely apparent at the point at which it is taking place.

On this Holocaust Memorial Day and 70th anniversary of the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz I am thinking about Anne Frank and her diary, about those people we met who survived – and I am thinking about the kids to whom I “taught” the Holocaust.

Some of them have been in contact with me through Facebook in the last few years – all of them now mature adults with kids of their own. First, they tell me their news and then they all say something like: “Mr Newland, do you remember that project we did on Anne Frank? I’ll never forget that.”

 

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 General Teaching Council. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.

You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk and book him for a talk.

His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.

I met an ex-pupil recently. What a little sh*t he turned out to be…


Education, they say, is what is left when you have forgotten everything you learned at school.

In the days when school governing bodies still asked interview questions like “Tell us what your philosophy of education is” I would answer: “Whatever children learn from me, I hope they will take away a love of learning that carries them through life. That is my purpose as a teacher.”

Funnily enough, I actually really meant it when I said it.

Asked the same question, what would you say?

I reflect on my ‘philosophy of education’ more and more now that the only thing that people like Ofsted are interested in is “outcomes”. By outcomes, they mean measurable outcomes like SATs results of course. A “love of learning throughout one’s life” is a desirable outcome but isn’t a very measurable one, I grant you that.

If I were facing an Ofsted inspection like many of you are, I would play the game – as I did when I was a Head. I used all the right language and spoke to the same agenda about data for this, data for that, outcomes here, outcomes there. We don’t make the rules of Ofsted inspections, but we have to play by them.

The question is important though. What do you hope children take away from the education you have given them, once they have forgotten they achieved a Level 5 in Maths at Key Stage 2 or a C Grade GCSE English? – as forget they surely will.

In recent years, I have changed my ‘philosophy of education’. No longer do I believe that the most important thing children take from education is a lifelong love of learning. In fact, now I believe that might even be an impediment.

I came to that conclusion a few years ago when I met an ex-pupil of mine who contacted me on Facebook. He had two degrees and was studying for a PhD. He asked would I like to meet for a coffee. I was delighted. I wanted to see exactly how one of my protégé’s had turned out. Here, in living colour, was a personification of my life’s work and philosophy – someone from a modest working-class background who was a living example of a lifelong love of learning. (I probably taught him alliteration too). I couldn’t wait to see him again after twenty-odd years.

He turned out to be a little shit – arrogant, conceited, full of his own self-importance. Once he’d told me about how brilliant he was, how many degrees he had and how much his brain was bursting with rarified knowledge, I couldn’t wait to get out of his company (and it was in Starbucks, so he coffee was awful as well). Mind you, he may have thought the same about me!

It’s fair to say that this meeting wasn’t the only thing that changed my ‘philosophy of education’ but it did focus my reflections. Now I believe the most important thing that we can leave kids with, once all the other stuff is forgotten, is character.

I don’t know how to teach character. There isn’t a syllabus for it and it’s certainly not on the National Curriculum. I have not the first idea of how it can be measured, and I don’t even know how to define it – but I do believe it exists. I also believe that it is the most important element of being a good human being and that teachers themselves must have it.

I met another of my ex-pupils a few years ago (that’s Facebook for you ; -). She had left school without achieving much educationally, had got herself pregnant while still a teenager and was struggling to hold down a part-time job while single-parenting two kids. But when I met her, she was absolutely lovely – courteous to me, generous to others, especially with her praise and above all, a wonderful and loving mother to two delightful children.

“This is my teacher!” she said as she introduced me to them.

As a teacher, it was one of the proudest moments of my professional life.

 

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 General Teaching Council. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.

You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk and book him for a talk.

His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.

 

Teachers should be touching children. The younger they are, the more often they should be doing it.


I talk to trainee teachers up and down the country every week. I tell them: “You should be touching children regularly – and the younger they are, the more you should be doing it.”

They look at me as if I have just outed myself as a serial paedophile.

I must admit I know I’m going to shock them, but that’s only because as a society we have got ourselves into the crazy position of believing that such a statement sounds sinister.

Touching children is both natural, appropriate, necessary and desirable. Don’t let any fool tell you it isn’t. As a teacher, you cannot do your job effectively unless you are doing it on a regular basis.

In recent years, I have heard people who should know better (such head teachers, training tutors and union officials for example) “advising” new teachers not to touch children unless other adults are present. I have heard this “advice” given to men especially, many of whom are scared witless already about being a man in a classroom half full of girls (and they wonder why we can’t recruit male primary school teachers!)

The principle legal responsibility of a teacher is that of carrying out a “duty of care” where they are “in loco parentis” (in place of the parent). Unsurprisingly, the various legal definitions of this cohere around the blindingly obvious statement that “a person with care of a child must do all that is reasonable in the circumstances for the purposes of safeguarding and promoting the welfare of the child…” (The Children Acts of 1989 and 2004).

How can you do that if you can’t or won’t do the following:

Praise, Congratulate and Affirm:

Children need – like everyone else and more often than most – to have their backs slapped, their hands shaken or to be given a ‘high five’ every time they achieve something worthwhile. They want – and need – someone significant to acknowledge their daily achievement – not just with announcements in assembly – but the normal, personal recognition that human behaviour affirms through physical interaction.

Show, Demonstrate and Model:

As a teacher you can’t do your job effectively unless you are regularly using the most fundamental of teaching skills – that of showing ‘how something works’ or ‘how to do’ something.

If you are:

  • a PE teacher and won’t support a child attempting to position themselves doing a forward roll or other gymnastic movement;
  • or a Drama or Dance teacher who won’t hold a child moving through a scene or movement that requires it;
  • or a Science teacher who won’t guide the hand of a child learning to measure chemicals or carry out their first dissection;
  • or a D&T teacher who won’t hold the hand of a child to direct their use of sharp or hazardous tools;
  • or a Music teacher who won’t position a violin, cello or other musical instrument to show a child how best to hold it,

then you cannot do your job effectively. (Some would even say you might be a crap teacher too – but I couldn’t possibly comment.)

Comfort, Aid and Support:

Children need comfort and support if they are upset by abuse or the physical assault of a bullying incident. They need someone to support and sympathise with them – not just with words – but perhaps with physical contact such as putting an arm around their shoulder or giving them a cuddle.

And what about First Aid? – surely there are few more intimate activities than allowing someone to dress a wound or care for you in a state of trauma or semi-consciousness?

Direct, Guide and Restrain:

Children need to have their hands held – to cross the road, to be led into assembly or on visits out of school. Sometimes they need to be physically ‘guided’ out of a classroom when they are dragging their feet or dawdling. Sometimes they need restraining too – when they must be prevented from harming themselves or others or when they are causing damage to property. In any case where you would be failing in your “Duty of Care” if you did not intervene.

Common Sense

Let’s get back to using our common sense and reclaim the notion that teaching is a very intimate activity – both psychologically (what can be more intimate than trying to get inside someone’s head to motivate and inspire them?) and physically.

We all know when touching is unwelcome, intrusive or an assault on our person, privacy or dignity. If you are in any doubt that it may be unwelcome or inappropriate, ask permission – as any normal person would in any other circumstance.

But for teachers doing their job to the best of their ability, physical contact with children is both appropriate, necessary and often desirable. Don’t let anyone make it sound anything other than that. Don’t let anyone degrade or diminish the effectiveness of what we are trying to do by impugning sinister motives where there is only innocent and appropriate professional behaviour.

 

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 General Teaching Council. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.

You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk and book him for a talk.

His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.

Why should it be illegal for teachers and their students to have sex?


I’ve just been to New Orleans in the USA for a holiday – a very nice place by the way – so do visit if you get the chance. But what gripped my attention was not the fascinating colonial history of one of America’s oldest cities, nor even the progress the city was making to re-build after Hurricane Katrina, it wasn’t even the captivating atmosphere generated by the jazz and blues riffs drifting up and down every street. It was a sex scandal involving two female teachers and a male student.

I was confronted with this news one morning as I stepped out to buy a local newspaper – something I like to do when I’m abroad – just to get the feel of the society I’m in. I strolled down a street in the delightful French Quarter and found one of those funny little American news-stands where you insert 75c and take a newspaper from the pile. Emblazoned across the front page of The New Orleans Times-Picayne were the faces of Rachel Respess and Shelley Dufresne who were accused of having sex with a 16 year-old student from their high school and had been arrested and charged with “carnal knowledge of a juvenile, indecent behaviour with a juvenile and contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile”.

I’d hardly begun to read the story in detail over my first coffee of the day in a local breakfast diner before I heard the first comments drifting across the restaurant from local New Orleanians. To some it was the source of some rather risqué jokes about “What a way to learn your three-times table!” To others the news was a cause of outrage and anger.

I have written before how I think young teachers as well as students can be vulnerable to inappropriate and sexual relationships (see my blog: “What’s the problem with inappropriate relationships?”). Young, new teachers may be lonely, comparatively immature and when only a few years exist between themselves and their students, they can inappropriately allow friendliness to become intimacy. In this case, one of the teachers was just 24 years old. The other one however was a 32 year-old mother of three. They both denied the charges.

The young man involved was a quarter-back on the high school football team. He had bragged to his friends and team-mates that he was – allegedly – having sex with two of his teachers and that he had a video to prove it.

This case, like some others in the UK that have involved sexual relationships between teachers and students, raised a number of interesting issues for me – and not least, I admit – my own prurient interest!

But seriously, the first issue that struck me was that in the state of Louisiana the age of consent is 17 – a year older than the UK and two or three years older than some European countries (like Sweden, France and Denmark where it is 15 and Germany, Austria and Italy where it is 14).

Interestingly though, Louisiana has a number of so-called ‘close-age exemptions’. These are where a person between 13 and 15 years of age can consent to have sex with someone who is up to three years older than them. Another is that a person between 15 and 17 can consent to sex with someone two years older than them. Of course, there is no exemption of any kind for teachers, however close in age they are to their students.

The second thing that struck me was the severity of the possible sentences the two teachers were facing. In Louisiana “carnal knowledge of a juvenile, indecent behaviour with a juvenile and contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile” are all, as you might imagine, serious criminal charges – what the Americans call felonies – and can carry a prison sentence of one to fifty years.

Though the young man was sixteen and was reported to have consented to the sex (he had bragged about it to his friends on the football team after all), he is nevertheless a minor in the state of Louisiana. So the teachers, if convicted, are likely to receive a prison sentence and possibly a long one if it can be proved they ‘groomed’ the student.

Though I haven’t been able to find out how long these particular laws have been in force in Louisiana, it did make me reflect on comparisons with UK law. (I did this over my by-now, mid-morning coffee… as you can see, free coffee re-fills in American diners have their advantages…)

I pondered that, in the UK, the law prohibiting sex between a teacher and a school student in the same school only came in with the Sexual Offences Act of 2003. Before then – as long as the student was over 16 – it was not illegal for a teacher and a student to have a sexual relationship. Now it is illegal even if the student is over 18 and an adult.

Bizarrely though, it is still not illegal for a teacher and a student to have a sexual relationship if they are at separate schools. As long as the student is sixteen and the teacher and student are at separate schools, it is not illegal.

I have no problem in deciding for myself that sex between a teacher and a school student at the same school is wrong. I don’t need a law to tell me that. I entirely agree it is a catastrophic breach of professional trust. In my view teachers should be sacked for it. I would probably even agree that teachers should be permanently struck off the teaching register for such a breach of their professional code.

But should it be illegal?

Why should a consensual sexual encounter or relationship with someone over the age of consent be a criminal offence – with the attendant threat of a very heavy prison sentence?

Yes, it’s wrong. Yes, it’s a breach of trust. Yes it should be a sack-able offence, even one that results in permanent barring from the profession. But should it be criminal?

Not in my view.

In my view, it is excessively punitive and I don’t see why teachers should be made an example of in this way. These are foolish and reckless mistakes but a heavy prison sentence and criminal record is not an appropriate response to them. I think we should look again at this law before it cripples the lives of more teachers. Furthermore, I can’t see what help it is affording the students involved – the (so-called) victims – their lives could also be potentially ruined by the guilt they may feel for the rest of their lives for consensually indulging in a relationship that has resulted in someone going to prison for a very long time.

That’s my view. What’s yours?

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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 General Teaching Council. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.

You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk and book him for a talk.

His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.

What can teachers be ‘struck-off’ for?


The new Education Secretary has announced that teachers who “fail to protect children from extremism” will face being struck off the teaching register without appeal. That seems right doesn’t it? We can’t have teachers “promoting extremism” can we?

Of course not! Where would be then?

A couple of decades ago, teachers were also told not to promote things. Then it was “homosexuality”. In 1986 the Thatcher government introduced Section 28 of the Local Government Act and made it illegal for teachers “to promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” Now that law is generally considered “extreme” and  “intolerant” though the law itself was only repealed in 2003.

For some years I worked at the now defunct General Teaching Council, which at the time had responsibility for both registering and regulating the profession. It was a thankless task with the 550,000 teachers in England – most of whom thought it was a pointless organisation and resented paying the modest fee – but we heard some interesting disciplinary cases.

Here’s one – a head teacher embezzled nearly £30,000 from school funds because she used the money to pay for the hospice care and specialist drugs for her terminally ill mother.

You can’t have head teachers fiddling the books even for reasons that might rend the heart. Strike her off!

These things always seem so straightforward until you get into the detail.

Actually she wasn’t caught taking the money out of school funds. She was caught putting it back in – and just at the point where she had re-paid almost all of it in the months after her mother had died.

What would you have done? Struck her off the register, never to teach again?

Here’s another – a teacher used the school’s computer and internet during lunchtimes to post comments on a political chat room. Not the worst crime in the world surely? Everyone uses work computers for personal use don’t they? I certainly did. Have you never read the BBC news website, booked cheap flights or even up-dated your Facebook status? And so what if it was political… we live in a democracy don’t we? Free speech and all that?

This teacher was a member of the BNP and posted offensive remarks about ethnic minorities and immigrants.

What would you have done? Struck him off? Are you sure your judgment isn’t biased because of his political views? Would you have been so damning if a friendly colleague had done something similar on the website of a mainstream political party – like those nice Liberal Democrats or those lovely Greens trying to save the planet?

In the talks I do around the country with thousands of new teachers, many ask me what are the circumstances where they might be “struck-off”.  Invariably they are surprised at the leniency displayed by the disciplinary panels at the former GTC and those that now deal with such cases at the National College for Teaching and Leadership.

So here’s a little exercise for you…

For which of these heinous crimes would you be certain to get a life-time ban? (Answers at the end… so don’t peek)

  1. A caution for being drunk and disorderly in a public place.
  2. Being an alcoholic.
  3. A caution for possession of recreational ‘dance’ drugs’.
  4. A caution for possession of a Class B drug (eg marijuana).
  5. A conviction for speeding at 100mph on a motorway.
  6. A conviction for domestic violence.
  7. A sexual relationship with a pupil over the age of 18 who is at your school.
  8. A sexual relationship with a 16 year-old pupil not at your school.
  9. Active membership of an extreme political party.

While you might not get permanently “struck-off” for some of these,  a conviction or caution might result in your employer dismissing you on the grounds you have “brought the school into disrepute” – especially these days.

My advice is: read your employment contract (particularly if you work at an Academy or Free School) and join a union.

 

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 and book him for a talk.

His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.

 

Answers:

Probably only Number 7 would result in a substantial or life-time ban – and even that is only as recent as the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Until then it would only have been considered ‘unprofessional’ but it was not illegal. Bizarrely, Number 8 is neither ‘unprofessional’ nor illegal. While most of the others may be illegal, they can be mitigated. Number 2 is considered a health issue, though turning up for work drunk would obviously be a disciplinary matter. As a matter of interest, the teacher disciplined for posting offensive comments on a far-right website is now the leader of the BNP.