Never let statistics spoil a good story: teachers and pupils at risk

(Please see a slightly different version of this in the The Conversation  available here)

The mainstream discourse around child abuse and protection is vigorously policed; anyone who deviates from the correct message can suffer. Thus it seems prudent to mention my many years as a child protection social worker, my abhorrence of abuse, my agreement that abusers should face disciplinary or legal consequences, and my default doubts about sexual relationships between people of very different ages. This being said, it is still possible to query many dominant assumptions and practices around the issue of abuse and protection in general, and to problematise many aspects of a news story initiated by the BBC yesterday (I6th January).

The report, that between 2008 and 2013, ‘at least 959’ (and possibly more) teachers were investigated for allegedly having inappropriate relationships with pupils, with around 250 actually prosecuted, was picked up and run in shortened or elaborated forms by many newspapers, broadcasters, and websites. Beyond a few additional quotes and comments from concerned parties (teaching unions and child protection agencies) there appeared to be nothing in the report that was not included in a BBC Radio1 Stories: Tempted by Teacher documentary, broadcast with musical interludes, in August 2013. It featured emotional testimony from a woman damaged by a seriously abusive sexual relationship with a teacher. The only new information was the figures derived from the Freedom of Information requests. The story, and the way it was formulaically retold, illustrates many of the difficulties attached to trying to understand or seriously discuss emotive issues like this. In a brief note only a few points can be raised.

The ‘statistics’ supporting the story were imprecise in many ways, some acknowledged. Not all local authorities responded to the freedom of information request; academies and private schools were not included; the precise nature of the misdemeanour prompting the investigations was unclear; and whether prosecutions produced guilty or not-guilty verdicts was unknown. Yet such flimsy information, presented as ‘hard’ numbers, was sufficient to carry the weight of headlines and news items. The existence of a number seemed to justify the sudden interest, with little reflection on its status or context. A comment from a NSPCC representative, that ‘in the context of eight million pupils and 400,000 teachers the number of teacher-pupil relationships is tiny’ was a welcome surprise, even though tempered by the obligatory ‘but one is one too many’. It seems foolish to waste energy on analysing such ‘data’, but even if nearly 2000 teachers had been accused over 5 years (double the number claimed) the annual incidence rate looks to be 0.001%. This begs the question of how low the figure needed to be for it not to have justified the news item.

That such ‘information’ can prompt a flood of breathless reporting demonstrates the power of the emotive public narrative to which the stories conformed. Serious analysis was unnecessary; all that was needed was to pile-in reference to sex, abuse, children, and adults. The simplistic script into which these constituents fit snugly is commonly understood now: all children are potential victims, permanently at risk, and all adults (‘other’ adults) are dangerous. This discourse is sustained by relatively few really horrible incidents, but its impact on school and other in loco parentis settings is extremely damaging. Relationships between teachers and young people have been rendered toxic, as (given the harm caused by any allegation) each party is now apparently dangerous to the other. In response these relationships have been sterilised and shorn of valuable elements of human development, like touch and normal friendliness. A common response to the danger in intergenerational interaction is to do everything in public, with witnesses, under surveillance. In reality this offers no real defence against abuse, no protection for teachers, and is fundamentally damaging to human trust and social wellbeing. It cannot be sensible to require good people, with no abusive interest or intent, to think and act as if they and their colleagues are abusers with something to hide.

Although media discussion of the ‘story’ included mention of misguided or false allegations which damage teachers’ careers irreparably, the real fuzziness of the category of ‘being investigated’ remains unacknowledged. In interviews with former teachers for my book in 2010 with Pat Sikes (Researching Sex and Lies in the Classroom: Allegations of Sexual Misconduct in Schools, London, Routledge), I encountered a music specialist who was reported to school managers for having insisted teenage pupils loosen their ties before singing, and for allegedly dropping paper so as to view female pupil’s legs while retrieving it. Sadly, it is currently heresy to suggest that some teenagers may sometimes exaggerate. The investigation and suspension took months, ended with his name being cleared, but prompted early retirement. Another respondent, a male primary teacher, completed a prison sentence before being exonerated at the Court of Appeal. His alleged misdemeanours were solely in the eye of the beholder (I have read the full transcript); some parents had taken against him and had badgered their children for negative reports. A similar story of teacher Neil Carr was recently reported from Greater Manchester (read here). Common to many such stories is the anxiety and ineffectiveness of school managers in responding to reports and allegations, preferring to push them onward and upward for fear of personal and professional damage. Yet all those I came into contact with eventually had their name cleared although not in time to save their careers, accompanying depression, suicidal thoughts, and often family breakdown.

However, in the present situation, fear, panic, and muddled thinking is the norm and almost to be expected. Risk is commonly misunderstood. This is not helped by pot-boiling creation of ‘news’, or by the vigorous defence by some organisations of the contemporary fear-and-control based discourse, in which they have significant capital invested.

Heather Piper

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