It was enrichment day at a Cheshire secondary school, and on the playing fields an assistant headteacher joked with a student. He chased her, squirted her with water and touched her on the back. He thought he was being playful but another teacher found his behaviour inappropriate. He was accused of failing to maintain professional boundaries and felt forced to resign in September 2019.

In March this year the Teaching Regulation Agency (TRA), an agency of the Department for Education that holds misconduct hearings in England, heard the case and decided not to ban the teacher, who had been a head of department at the school for six years. While it said his behaviour had been “over-familiar, playful and inappropriate”, it did not consider there was any evidence of sexual intent. Witnesses praised his “excellent teaching abilities” and the panel noted that despite his high workload he had taken on significant pastoral responsibilities over the years.

But it was too late. Once a case comes before a TRA panel the teacher can be identified, even if it fails to make a prohibition order, and his case generated salacious and suggestive headlines based on what was claimed but not proven. So should it have been referred to the TRA at all?

Andrew Faux, a barrister who represents teachers in disciplinary cases, says not. “The TRA was set up to consider the most serious cases and has only one sanction – a prohibition order to stop someone teaching – and yet schools refer matters that they should be resolving themselves,” he says. “It’s worrying, because the TRA when it finds misconduct is more likely to use its one sanction, resulting in teachers being unfairly banned. An organisation that was set up with the intention of looking only at those guilty of very serious misconduct has started to bring cases where there is misconduct of a lesser degree.”

Unions say the issue is all the more important during the pandemic as teachers are increasingly being called on to support students worried and depressed or facing poverty. Austerity funding cuts over the past decade have meant schools can no longer rely on educational psychologists and welfare workers to help students, leaving the job to teachers.

In February this year the TRA heard the case of a senior teacher with a long and unblemished record who had been referred by a school in Norwich because, in April 2019, he had made mistakes in his handling of a student with a history of self-harm. When the student brought a knife into school the teacher handed it in to be locked away and notified the student’s mother, but he was later accused of failing to inform the police and lying to a colleague about the incident. He was also accused of failing to protect the student because he did not confiscate a blister pack of eight paracetamol tablets.

The TRA decided after investigation – including taking evidence in private about the student – that the nature and severity of the teacher’s behaviour “were at the less serious end of the possible spectrum” and that to ban him would be to “deprive the public of his contribution to the profession”.

The NASUWT says the TRA is spending large sums on solicitors’ fees and investigations in cases that should not have been referred, such as a teacher in England who was accused of being too familiar with students because he let them drop the “Mr” before his surname.

And it’s not just in England where teachers are losing their livelihood over cases that the unions say should be sorted out at school, trust or local authority level. In Wales in March a design and technology teacher, Alexander Price, was banned from teaching for two years after his school referred his case to the Education Workforce Council (EWC), the regulator in Wales. Although he can reapply for the teaching register after that time, he says he is unlikely to find another teaching job.

Price, 44, was accused of unprofessional conduct because of derogatory remarks he made about his school, Denbigh High, in a series of anonymous blogs that did not identify it. The school accused him of insulting female pupils in one blog criticising the annual prom, where he wrote that teenage girls were encouraged to dress up like “eastern European prostitutes or trans human Kardashian clones”.

Price said he was not criticising the students but the school for using the prom as a reward, giving out the wrong message by encouraging pupils to value how they looked rather than what they had achieved. He had recently returned from Texas supporting his department’s team of four 15-year-old girls who were competing for Wales in the finals of the international Formula One schools engineering championship. In a series of anonymous blogs he complained about management of the school, which he felt accepted poor behaviour and had low expectations of students.

Mary Bousted
Mary Bousted: ‘Disciplinary sanctions are becoming inappropriate and unduly excessive.’ Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi/The Guardian

He was not alone in his criticism. Denbigh High was at the time under orders from Estyn, the school inspectorate in Wales, to improve standards, especially for girls. Inspectors reported that only half of students bothered to listen. Two years later, the school was put into special measures. Price says he trained as a teacher in his 30s because he wanted to give something back to society, but instead he is now out of the profession, running a company designing and building garden home offices.

“It was about this time five years ago. The headteacher called me into his office and said he had been informed there was a blog and that I was the author and I was suspended on full pay for 18 months whilst he carried out an investigation, which led to a 100-page report and must have cost thousands,” says Price. He was told another member of staff had stumbled across the blog.

“Writing the blog was cathartic and I hoped it would show others struggling in the same position that they were not alone. There was nothing that could identify the school and it only became public when my case was decided, five years later,” he says. Denbigh High was approached and made no comment.

Patrick Roach, the NASUWT’s general secretary, says cases that should be dealt with at employer level are clogging up the system, resulting in some teachers having to wait years for a hearing. “The TRA was set up to deal with only the most serious cases and we are detecting a mission creep,” he says. “It’s not clear whether that is deliberate on the part of the TRA or if schools are being too cautious, but the result is extra anxiety for the teacher and adverse press coverage that may not be borne out by facts. There needs to be much greater clarity for schools about when referrals should be made.”

Poor human resources advice is part of the problem, says Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU). “School leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to access good advice for dealing with disciplinary cases,” she says. “Academisation has resulted in local authorities losing those posts and schools having to use general advisers, many of whom have little or no experience in the education sector. As a result, issues get escalated too quickly and disciplinary sanctions are becoming inappropriate and excessive.”

A spokesperson for the DfE said the work of the TRA was important and designed to keep children safe, but added: “Cases that are not sufficiently serious should be dealt with locally.”

Liz Brimble, of the EWC, said: “If a case doesn’t meet the threshold for consideration, it is closed. We monitor the case processing times of other regulators which we benchmark ourselves against and we know we are one of the most efficient and expeditious.”

Meanwhile, Amy Martin, the student who led the winning F1 schools team, says Price was a “real loss” to teaching. “He told us about the competition and we won four world titles and it led to me being selected as a member of the Williams F1 engineering academy,” says Martin, who is in her fifth year with Williams and is studying systems engineering at the University of Warwick.

“He wasn’t a conventional teacher, he always reached out for more and got his students to do the same. Without that inspiration and passion I never would have got where I am today. When I first met him I never thought I could become an engineer, but he gave me the confidence and skills to aim higher and be unique. I will be forever grateful to have been taught by someone like him.”



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