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28 September 2012

This week’s PR fail: the Department of Education and Megan Stammers

Teachers accused of offences against children: anonymous unless charged.

By Dominic Ponsford

On Monday, legislation comes into force which means teachers accused of offences against children have lifelong anonymity unless they are charged.

Unfortunately for the Department of Education and teaching unions, this comes at the same time as a high-profile news story illustrating how ludicrous the new law is – that of Eastbourne teacher Jeremy Forrest who has now been discovered with 15-year-old schoolgirl Megan Stammers in Europe.

I can name him today, but as of Monday, who knows? This situation today prompted the Department of Education to put out a press release, the first sentence of which is the exact opposite of the truth.

A Department for Education spokesperson said:

This change will not affect cases like the one currently getting national attention. The police, media organisations and others will be able to apply to a magistrate for an order lifting teacher anonymity. If it is in the best interest of the child, this will be granted straightaway so the public can help the police. No teacher who has been charged with an offence, or where a warrant for arrest has been issued, will enjoy anonymity.

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While situations like this are not common, it is the case that malicious and groundless allegations against teachers have been a serious problem in our schools. A survey for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers found that one in four school staff has been subject to false allegations from pupils. We want teachers to be confident that they can impose discipline without their careers and personal lives potentially being blighted by baseless claims.

Unfortunately the new law will affect cases exactly like the one currently getting national attention.

In future, the next time a teacher abducts a child in their care the police will have to go to a magistrate and argue the case for their right to anonymity to be waived. The order could well be opposed.

Anyone who has tried to get information out of a police press office will know that they can be pretty slow off the mark at the best of times when it comes to divulging information about recent crimes and this crazy piece of legislation is not going to help matters.

As an aside, the new legislation doesn’t just affect the media – it means that parents who make accusations about teachers to each other could fall foul of the act. The result of all this will mean that teachers who have a reputation for overstepping the normal bounds of the teacher-child relationship, but are never convicted of anything, will move from school to school protected by lifelong anonymity over any accusations which may have been made about them.