Don't always believe the children

When more than half the staff at a special school were accused, in effect, of beating up their pupil

A few weeks ago, Martyn Clarke, a care worker at Bridge-view special school on the outskirts of Hull, was acquitted by Frederick Rutherford, a district judge, of a charge of common assault. The prosecution alleged that Clarke, who is 39 and has spent much of his professional career at the school, had grabbed the back of a boy's shirt after he had kicked over a chair. Clarke is then meant to have marched the boy up a few stairs, held him by his lapels so their faces were inches apart and cried: "You don't even know who I am, you don't even know my name. What right do you have to hurt me?"

The defence disputed the prosecution account of the minor fracas and said that Clarke had dealt with a difficult child with perfect propriety. The judge agreed. He ruled that Clarke had followed the rules, and threw the case out.

"Small trial in Yorkshire: no one convicted" is not a headline that is likely to get readers storming the newsagents. Yet the convulsions at Bridgeview school illustrate the extreme difficulties of investigating allegations made by children of crimes against children. The difficulties could easily be dismissed as a modern luxury. For centuries - for ever, really - physical and sexual abuse of children has been hidden or tolerated. Luck rather than the law protected them. The advances made in child protection in the 20th century are a small argument against those who, for understandable reasons, doubt the idea of human progress.

"There's no such thing as bad pupils, only bad teachers," runs the mantra of modern education. "Believe the children," echoes the mantra of modern social work. These sound admirable sentiments. But neither slogan is as easy to practise as to preach, as the case of Bridgeview shows. It is a special school for about 85 boys in Hessle, an East Riding village that was submerged by the expansion of Hull. The boys are aged between eight and 16, and most of them are boarders. As the aim of current education policy is to keep children with "special needs" inside mainstream schools, it is fair to add that most are hard cases as well.

The official description is that they vary from having "emotional and behavioural difficulties" to "attention deficit disorder". Past and present teachers at the school translated that for me. The pupils, they said, varied from being mild juvenile delinquents to boys who were heading for prison. Not all fitted into this spectrum: a few just couldn't handle ordinary school, but responded well to the intensive supervision offered by Bridgeview. The majority, however, came from broken families and homes that were saturated with drink and drugs. They had been expelled from the mainstream, and there was nowhere in the system apart from special schools to put them.

One teacher said that he could think of only a couple of instances where Bridgeview had got children back to the level where they could be returned safely to standard state schools. The staff measured their achievements and failures by other criteria. There are some alumni of Bridgeview imprisoned for murder; but there are others who have got steady jobs in civilian life or the army.

In January 2000, the school inspectors from Ofsted gave Bridgeview a rave review that praised the care its staff gave. It was therefore something of a shock the following year when teachers and care workers were accused of "rough handling" - that is, beating up the children. Shock turned to incredulity when the scale of the allegations became clear. Eighteen of the 34 accused faced allegations of misconduct. A culture of endemic violence appeared to have been uncovered.

When the shock subsided, the staff noticed that something odd had happened. By rights, all 18 should have been suspended. Every one of them was, after all, accused of being a danger to children. But mass suspensions would have closed the school, so in the end East Riding of Yorkshire Council decided that only eight people should be forced to take gardening leave.

Clarke, a former special constable, was among them. "It was ghastly," he said. "I'm an honest, law-abiding citizen. To have to go to give a statement to the police at the station - to be on the other side of the counter - was tragic, devastating, humiliating."

The suspended staff faced severe restrictions on their freedom of movement. In letters dated 30 April 2001 from the acting head of Bridgeview, they were "instructed not to enter this school or any other school or establishment where children are present, nor attempt to contact any pupil, parent, governor or fellow member of staff (except me)". In effect, they were banned from taking their own children to school and from visiting libraries, museums, art galleries, sports centres, theatres, cinemas and anywhere with a creche. The prohibition was close to house arrest and, according to Clarke, his colleagues had to resign from helping with Scout groups or playing in brass bands.

A report after the event by the NSPCC and other agencies described what had sparked the draconian response. There had been "concerns over inappropriate care evident over a period of time", it said. In 1999, a pupil had been taken to hospital with a suspected broken arm; broken, allegedly, by a teacher. The police saw the pupil and noticed that no injuries were visible and that the pupil made no complaint. Other incidents included a pupil with a fracture to the arm and allegations of children falling down stairs during a scuffle or receiving bruises while being restrained.

A major police investigation began that included the "trawling" of present and former pupils for evidence. Trawling is one of the most controversial police tactics around. Instead of investigating crimes, detectives go out to find the victims of crimes they do not know have occurred. Last October, the Commons home affairs committee reported on the trawling for claims of child abuse in institutions, and found that the Crown Prosecution Service rejected 79 per cent of the cases presented to it by the police, compared with an overall rejection rate of 13 per cent. Chris Mullin, the committee chairman, said he was in "no doubt that a number of innocent people have been convicted, and that many other innocent people have had their lives ruined. The plain fact is that many police trawls are not generating evidence of sufficient quality to satisfy the burden of proof."

The CPS may well believe that ill-educated and inarticulate children will be torn apart by defence counsel in the witness box. That a good lawyer can get the better of them does not make what they say untrue. Senior officers have defended trawling as the only way to find out what had happened during institutional child abuse at a church or a school ten or 20 years ago. Earlier this year, Terry Jones, formerly detective chief inspector of Greater Manchester Police's abusive images unit, complained about the failure to make child abuse investigations a priority. This implies that there is hardly a witch-hunt of child abusers.

But when all the caveats have been taken on board, the assumption that children are telling the truth often does not stand up. The Court of Appeal has overturned convictions because it suspected "victims" were in the accusation business for the compensation. Paul Swarbrick, who is the union rep at Bridgeview, said that for the younger children at the school, there may be another motive. "There's a lot of abuse from the more difficult children," he said. "You ask them something, or to do something, and it's 'fuck off', and the chair's kicked over and they're out of the room and smashing windows. If you try to discipline they say that they will 'get you done'. It's got to the stage where teachers are loath to put a finger on children without witnesses present."

The power that comes from pupils warning teachers that they can "get you done" increases tenfold in a trawling operation. However carefully the questions are phrased, it is an invitation to settle scores or become the centre of attention. The accusations from the Bridgeview trawl included fantastic accounts of teachers jumping on pupils' heads. If true, there would, at best, be fractured skulls and, at worst, corpses. Neither was in evidence.

All the police and social services have to show for repeated inquiries into the school was the failed Clarke prosecution and one successful disciplinary charge against a teacher. His terrible crime had been to get recalcitrant boys out of a shower by turning on the cold-water tap. He was duly reprimanded.

It might be argued that the authorities were merely doing their job, and if they did not investigate suspicions of abuse the media would be the first to complain about a return to the days of routine neglect of children's interests. This is true, and no sane person would want it any other way. You could go on to say that no harm was done when the accusations were carefully examined and found to be groundless. This is far more dubious, and not only because of the misery and deprivation of liberty suffered by the accused. Good institutions, as Ofsted said Bridgeview was, can be wrecked in the process. Disillusioned staff leave and talented replacements are hard to find because there's a bad smell about a place where the pupils have the upper hand.

In the end, all the talk of the interests of the child coming first isn't an easy way out. It cannot free modern society from the old requirements that you should not throw accusations around without proof; and that suspects are innocent until proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt.