False allegations can blight teaching, says ATL union
Schools must ensure blameless members of staff do not have their careers wrecked by false allegations, a union's annual conference has heard.
More than one in five education staff (22%), surveyed by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said they had been falsely accused by a pupil.
And 38% of 685 union members questioned said it had happened to a colleague.
The ATL conference has voted to back a call for all education staff accused of offences to be given anonymity in law.
The right to anonymity until charged was granted to teachers in 2012, but support staff, such as teaching assistants, librarians and lab technicians were not included.
The resolution calls on the union to lobby the next government to extend this safeguard "to all education staff who have contact with pupils".
"The majority of teaching assistants come from the community in which the school is situated and the consequences of their name, and the allegation, being known locally could be extremely serious, leading to them being punished even when they have done nothing wrong," said Kathryn Booth, who proposed the motion.
An overwhelming majority of those surveyed (94%) agreed anonymity should be extended to all school and further education staff.
"I appreciate that allegations by children should be taken seriously, but equally so should the possibility that the accused is totally without blame," said one primary teacher.
Others said false accusations could be a trigger for staff leaving the profession.
"Even if the allegation is shown to be false it leaves a lasting scar," said Cornwall branch secretary Dave Guiterman.
Several members felt there had been an increase in allegations from pupils, stemming from poor parental discipline, young people always wanting their way and staff being unable to challenge behaviour "without a comeback".
Some 14% of those questioned said they had been falsely accused by pupils' family members and 23% said this had happened to colleagues.
Many staff felt their school or college had been unsupportive.
"It was established immediately that the allegation against me was false, but I felt everyone was talking about me.
"My head teacher threatened me that if another allegation was made I would be suspended," said a primary teacher from Hertfordshire.
ATL general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said that without an extension of the right to anonymity to all education staff, the careers of innocent people could be "blighted unnecessarily".
Children's welfare and safety "must always come first", said Dr Bousted.
"But the balance needs to be right so that teachers, heads and support staff do not suffer unnecessarily when false allegations are made against them.
"Schools and colleges need to recognise that young people sometimes make up allegations - they may be angry, under stress, suffering problems at home or have a host of other reasons - and take this into account when investigating them. "
Schools should have clear, timely and fairly administered policies to investigate allegations against staff, she added.
The conference, in Liverpool, has heard a call for "far-reaching reform" of the education watchdog, Ofsted, from Labour's shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt.
Mr Hunt commited a Labour government to a "peer-review" inspection system led by heads and teachers.