Education news

Teachers facing allegations of sexual abuse `should be granted anonymity'

Sir John Gillen is leading an independent review into how the law in Northern Ireland deal with serious sexual offences

TEACHERS facing sexual abuse allegations should be granted anonymity under sweeping reforms aimed at improving how serious cases are handled.

Classroom staff accused of sexually assaulting children in school can be identified, pre-charge, in Northern Ireland - unlike Wales and England.

A comprehensive review by retired judge Sir John Gillen has recommended legal protection be extended.

Unions say that unlike elsewhere in the judicial system, teachers facing allegations are "guilty until proven innocent", with schools under pressure to suspend.

Sir John spoke to more than 200 individuals and organisations as part of his review into justice delivery around serious sex abuse cases.

The public will be asked to give opinions in a consultation which will run until January.

It followed the acquittal of rugby internationals Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding who were charged with rape earlier this year.

Sir John noted that protecting the identity of teachers did not apply to Northern Ireland but said "there is no reason why similar statutory protection should not be given here".

The Department of Education, he reported, issued a circular in 2015 addressing the issue.

It stated that it was important that when an allegation was made, the school "makes every effort to maintain confidentiality and guard against unwanted publicity" while the claim is investigated.

The guidance said the Education Act 2011 introduced reporting restrictions in England and Wales, preventing the publication of "any material that may lead to the identification of an individual who has been accused by, or on behalf of, a pupil from the same school".

While this does not apply to the north, the circular said "legal advice is that the restrictions should be applied as best practice".

Sir John recommended statutory protection.

"I see no logic in schoolteachers in Northern Ireland being denied the statutory protection of anonymity given to those in England and Wales when pupils make allegations of a sexual nature against them," he reported.

"Schoolteachers are uniquely vulnerable to such allegations and therefore merit statutory protection."

Justin McCamphill, NASUWT National Official, welcomed the recommendation.

"It is important to note that this protection only applies before the teacher is charged," he said.

"The NASUWT are absolutely clear there is no place in the profession for those who abuse children and all allegations made by young people must be properly investigated.

"However, there have been cases of students making allegations against teachers who they have sought to reprimand for misbehaviour and it is a fact that the majority of allegations against teachers turn out to be false or malicious. If a teacher is named as a suspect before a charge has even been put, it fuels gossip and taints the teacher's reputation to the extent that some find it difficult to return to work even if cleared of all allegations."

Alastair Donaghy, regional official with the National Education Union, said any allegation needed to be investigated but individuals should be protected.

"It can be very very damaging to a teacher who is eventually cleared, their reputation is already damaged irreparably," he said.

Avril Hall Callaghan, General Secretary of the Ulster Teachers' Union, said malicious allegations were rising. These, she said, could destroy the lives of teachers and their families

"In our profession we are uniquely vulnerable to such allegations and so we should have commensurate protection," she said.

"This is no way undermines the heinousness of these crimes but the law must also ensure that innocent teachers are protected should allegations prove to be false. We've seen an unprecedented number of teachers suspended as a result of malicious accusations.

"We are not over-stating the matter to say that teachers' lives are being ruined. We receive at least one query every couple of weeks from members facing claims by pupils and that number is escalating. Worryingly, more often than not, parents will have by-passed the school's procedures when it comes to dealing with such complaints, instead going straight to the police."

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