The worst call
This article was first published in iExcellence’s Independent Insight, Spring Edition 2018.
You receive a phone call from a colleague saying that a school trip has just returned and a parent has made a serious allegation about the behaviour of one of the teachers towards their child.
The teacher was responsible for taking a group of Year 9 students to the south of France. Shortly after the phone call from the parent, their daughter came into the colleague’s office to discuss some homework and then broke down in tears explaining that her French teacher had taken her out for walks in the evening during the trip, touched her inappropriately (albeit he says it was an accident) and had been sending social media messages with sexual innuendos to her.
As with all heads, safeguarding is one of your highest priorities, including ensuring that the school has in place and adheres to effective safeguarding policies and procedures that comply with relevant legislation and guidance.
How should you react?
Call the police and inform them what has happened. In addition, suggest that the teacher is dismissed summarily without notice. Given there have been some comments about the teacher’s behaviour on social media, you post a Tweet from the school’s Twitter account explaining that the school has acted swiftly and decisively in dealing with the teacher’s behaviour by dismissing them.
Hold a meeting with the teacher, parent and the pupil to discuss the matter. You defend the teacher and query whether the pupil is relaying the facts correctly. (The pupil is known as a hypochondriac and the teacher is just a bit eccentric: he is known to be a bit ‘over friendly’ sometimes but he has been at the school for years, his pupils always get really good exam results and he is really popular with parents and teachers alike.)
Quiz both the teacher and pupil with as many questions as possible about what happened. Discuss with the senior leadership team (SLT) your proposal to suspect the teacher on full pay and conduct an internal investigation.
Keep the matter confidential and advise the teacher to do the same: you are aware that the pupil asked their teacher to keep the matter a secret because she was worried about the implications of it being made public and was concerned she would be seen as over-exaggerating or a ‘tease’.
Ensure the teacher has made a contemporaneous written record of their conversation with the pupil. Check the procedures set out in the school’s safeguarding policy and ensure the school’s designated safeguarding lead and governor responsible for safeguarding are informed of the allegation and that the designated officer is contacted.
Which is the best option?
Summary dismissal without an investigation of the allegations would be an inadvisable knee-jerk reaction. It could open up the school to the risk of a claim of unfair dismissal by the teacher, which may have serious reputational and financial implications. In addition, if the school is seen to ignore its own disciplinary policy, it may cause upset amongst staff.
The use and monitoring of a school’s Twitter account is a useful means to protect the school’s reputation but announcing the dismissal of a teacher via social media would be far from appropriate, particularly given the safeguarding context.
You and the colleague who notified you about the incident should be guided in this scenario by the desire to secure the pupil’s welfare and not the protection of the teacher’s career or reputation. The school cannot simply defend the teacher against the allegations made by the parent on the basis that ‘that is just the way the teacher is and, after all, they produce fantastic academic results’; those involved have a duty to report allegations of this type immediately and in line with the school’s safeguarding policy. The parent should be reassured that the complaint is being taken seriously and being dealt with as a matter of urgency.
The school should not undertake its own investigations before contacting the designated officer (formerly known as the ‘local authority designated officer’ or ‘LADO’) particularly as this could jeopardise statutory investigations. Suspension should only take place following consultation with the designated officer and should not be the school’s first course of action. In any event, suspension is a serious step and there must be reasonable grounds justifying suspension, and so thought will need to be given to the circumstances in each case.
Neither you as the head nor the accused teacher should keep this a secret. The colleague who was notified of the incident should explain to the pupil, in a sensitive manner, that it is not possible to keep the matter a secret, nor is it in the pupil’s best interests. The colleague has an obligation to disclose the matter to the school’s designated safeguarding lead (do you ensure that all staff members and governors know who that is?), who will deal with the information in a confidential manner and only share the information with others on a ‘need to know’ basis.
This is the most appropriate response. The first step will be to consult the designated safeguarding lead and ensure that the colleague who was approached by the parent makes a written record of the parent’s complaint and of their subsequent conversation with the pupil. The designated officer should be contacted for advice on the most appropriate course of action, in relation to both the teacher and the pupil.
In this scenario there may be a concern about online grooming by the pupil’s teacher. If there is a belief that a crime may have been committed, the school should inform the police, following discussion with the designated officer (and, in these cases, a serious incident report should be made to the Charity Commission). Given the severity of the allegation, it would also be appropriate to suspend the teacher. In addition, the school should be mindful of its obligations to report individuals to the Disclosure and Barring Service (formerly the Criminal Records Bureau).
- Avoid a knee-jerk reaction: it is important to address the concerns about the pupil’s welfare immediately. However, the school should avoid jumping to conclusions. The legislation and guidance relating to safeguarding is, for good reason, relatively prescriptive and it is important that the school follows closely the procedures set out in its safeguarding policy.
- The chair of governors should be informed of safeguarding issues as appropriate so that the governing body can: ensure that particular incidents are dealt with as appropriate; identifying any worrying trends about how the SLT deals with and seeks to prevent safeguarding issues; and lastly, be prepared for potential press enquiries or media coverage.
- Ensure there is a system for the designated safeguarding lead and governor responsible for safeguarding to review the school’s safeguarding policy on a regular basis. In addition, make sure staff and the governing body have appropriate and regular safeguarding training and that, when you are consulted on the agenda fir governors’ meetings, you check that appropriate time has been set aside in the agenda to have a full discussion of safeguarding matters. Speak to the chair of governors about whether the governors should submit a serious incident report to the Charity Commission – charity trustees have a duty to report to the Commission ‘serious incidents’ which include those that pose a serious risk to a school’s pupils or reputation and those that have been reported to the policy or other statutory agency.
- Ensure the school has in place mechanism that provides pupils, parents and staff with an accessible, non-intimidating and fair process to report and deal with concerns about inappropriate behaviour, of a sexual nature or otherwise. Consider also the culture of school; on the one hand, it is important to foster a collegiate environment where everyone supports and protects each other but, on the other, it is important to ensure that, if someone has a concern about a member of the school community, they know that the concern will not be dismissed but will be taken seriously and dealt with fairly.