Hannah Fidell’s recent BBC drama A Teacher examines an affair between a young US high school teacher (Claire) and her 17-year-old student (Eric). Dissatisfied with her marriage, Claire's life changes when a sexual attraction grows between her and Eric, a popular pupil in her English class. Their connection allows them to escape their humdrum existence, but their relationship rapidly accelerates, leaving a trail of damage that shatters their lives, and the lives of their colleagues and families.
A Teacher is fictional, but it does regrettably depict the reality of grooming and sexual abuse known to take place in the UK’s school sector. When teachers undergo their professional training, teachers’ standards are reinforced, which include a requirement for “teachers to uphold public trust in the profession [...] and at all times observing proper boundaries appropriate to a teacher’s professional position”.
Many have been known to cross those boundaries, and to commit gross breaches of trust with pupils, including, most recently, a married 35-year-old teacher from Buckingham who received a prison sentence of six years and two months for causing a child under 16 to engage in sexual activity.
HR’s role once abuse has come to light
Once a potential sexual abuse case comes to light, senior management must report allegations promptly to their designated external children’s services team (known as LADO), so a position of trust meeting can take place with head teacher, HR, police and social services.
The employee would be suspended on full pay pending the outcome of an internal disciplinary process. Depending on the outcome of the position of trust meeting, criminal proceedings would run alongside the internal matter. Even if a criminal conviction is not secured and an internal disciplinary does not reach a conclusion (perhaps because an employee resigns beforehand), schools are obliged to report this type of case to the Disclosure and Barring Service and the Teaching Regulation Agency (TRA). The latter will review the case independently and decide whether the teacher in question should be barred from the profession.
Grooming versus situational abuse
Around an estimated 25 per cent of child sex offenders are paedophiles – sexually attracted to children and predisposed to grooming. The remainder are believed to be adults who may have had no prior sexual attraction to children before being presented with an opportunity or circumstance within an organisation – in other words, situational abuse.
The circumstance may have been related to feelings of attraction to a specific child, or a result of poor boundary setting, or simply because the perpetrator did not believe they would be ‘found out’ (Safer Recruitment Consortium, 2019).
A Teacher, a depiction of situational abuse, sees Fidell doing a phenomenal job of raising awareness of this issue, including the long-term impact on mental health and employability this type of relationship has on both perpetrator and victim.
What steps can HR, school governors and education colleagues take to prevent such abuse from happening in the first place?
While widely accepted that the sector can never entirely eradicate this type of abuse, there is much that can be done to embed a culture of vigilance and to minimise such incidents. For example, colleagues can be trained to identify the common behaviours displayed by would-be abusers. Prompt internal reporting protocols can be established and staff should feel reassured if they wish to blow the whistle on a colleague’s inappropriate conduct.
Staff should be aware of the code of conduct concerning professional boundaries, and understand how breaches of trust will be handled. Recruitment processes and other internal staffing policies should be reviewed to help deter, reject or identify people who might abuse children, or who are otherwise unsuited to work with them.
In short, never think you have done enough in terms of creating a safer culture and always believe A Teacher could happen here.
Michelle Gabriel is director of people at Washwood Heath Multi Academy Trust, an employment lawyer and an accredited safer recruitment trainer for the education sector