Last reviewed 3 August 2015

Nigel Baker of Lexicon Employment Law Training looks at some topical issues: managing false allegations against staff; online abuse; staff wellbeing; and health and safety responsibilities.

False allegations against staff

Although false allegations against teaching staff are not a new problem, they remain a serious worry for teachers who are a relatively easy target. A recent survey of 685 members by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ALT) revealed that 22% had faced false allegations made by a pupil, while 14.3% had faced claims by a pupil’s parent or other family member.

Of those polled, 37.7% said that someone in their current school or college had an untrue allegation made against them. Of those who had faced an allegation at some point, 69.5% said that the allegation was supposed to have taken place when they were working with a class or group of pupils, and 24.2% said that it was supposed to have taken place on school or college premises outside of class.

Half of the allegations against the staff were dismissed by their employers, and 30.2% said that they continued working while they were investigated. Only 5.7% said that they had been suspended and 4.2% had been subjected to disciplinary action.

As with online abuse, the effect of a false allegation against a teacher can be devastating and many victims said that it was a key reason that they considered leaving the profession. Such conduct blighted careers and placed added stress on teaching staff.

However, a balance needs to be struck by the school authorities between the interests of staff and the welfare of pupils. All complaints and accusations by pupils must be investigated and those staff concerned must be supported throughout the process.

These can be complex issues and pupils who make false accusations against staff can do so for a variety of reasons, including anger, vindictiveness, frustration, stress and personal problems at school or home.

Online abuse of teachers

Teachers are also frequently victims of online abuse. A recent study by NASUWT found that the number of teachers facing abuse on social media had more than doubled in the past 12 months. The abuse ranged from sexist, racist, and homophobic remarks to offensive comments about their appearance and classroom competence.

Of 1500 members polled, 60% said that they had been the victims of online abuse on social networks. Worryingly, 48% of these remarks were posted by pupils, 40% were put up by parents and 12% said that both parents and pupils were responsible. The survey found that 62% of pupils had posted insulting comments and 34% had taken photos or videos without consent. Of pupils responsible for online abuse, 57% were aged between 14–16 years, and 38% were aged between 11 and 14 years.

It is apparent that many pupils and some parents think that online abuse is an oblique or indirect means of getting at staff, and that they have the right to do so. However, such conduct undermines staff confidence, reveals lack of respect for teachers and takes its toll on staff health and overall wellbeing.

Teachers, like other employees, need to work in a safe and non-threatening environment and employers are under a legal duty to secure this. Allowing staff to be bullied by pupils, whether through online social media platforms or otherwise, is a dereliction of duty, and schools must take suitable disciplinary action (including expulsion) against those responsible.

It is imperative that school policies deal with abuse of staff in all its forms, and their purpose and content need to be well publicised to both pupils and parents and reinforced at regular intervals.

Wastage rates of new entrants to teaching

Teaching is one of the more stressful occupations, and this can impact on the physical and mental wellbeing of frontline staff. The ALT states that only 62% of newly qualified staff remained in teaching some 12 months later. This dropout rate has increased from 20% in 2005 and is a worrying trend. The question is why almost 11,000 new teachers leave the profession and record numbers are giving up mid-career. According to the ALT, the underlying reasons are poor levels of pay, workload pressures and long hours — a state of affairs which the union has said is “incompatible with normal life”.

In particular, the workload pressure, which was cited by 73% of trainees and newly qualified staff as a reason they have considered leaving the profession, is said to lead to exhausted and stressed teachers. And it is not just on site that pressures are exerted. According to a survey of 1500 members by NASUWT, teachers are expected to deal with an increasing number of work-related emails outside school, amounting to an “email intrusion”. Apparently, 73% of staff receive out-of-school hours emails, 88% of which are during weekends.

It is worrying that, according to a recent survey of 4000 adults by Opinium Research, 21% of young professionals believe that they have a drinking problem. For those under stress, alcohol is often a means of temporary escape. It is the duty of employers to spot those warning signs exhibited by their staff that indicate health problems, which may be work related or otherwise. This is all part of the very important support and counselling role of management in looking after the welfare of staff.

The pressure of constant structural change and examination framework regulation is also important to teachers and schools alike, with the inspection regime, regulatory bodies’ supervision and curriculum changes having an impact.

But it has to be recognised that teaching cannot stand still and has to respond to changing demands and pupil aspirations. What does not change, however, is the time which is available for schools to deliver the curriculum and deal with all the competing subject inputs.

There is ongoing debate about the extent to which schools should take on some of the roles and instruction previously seen as the primary responsibility of the family at home and, also, the extent to which schools should be preparing their secondary pupils for their practical working life after school.

Sport and health and safety

The potential safety hazards of teaching and managing school sports have again been highlighted following the severe injuries sustained by a nine-year-old pupil who was accidently struck on the head by a shot-put thrown by another pupil during a multi-sports PE lesson.

The governors of the boy's school in Kent were recently prosecuted and pleaded guilty to the charge of failing to ensure that a child in their care was, so far as is reasonably practicable, not exposed to risks to his health and safety. The governing body was fined £1000 and ordered to pay £1375 in costs, having admitted a breach of s.3(1) Health & Safety at Work Act 1974.

The school was criticised for allowing more than four sports, with one throwing event, to go on simultaneously. Although the school had conducted a risk assessment for its PE lessons, it had not adopted the necessary measures to avoid the risks disclosed. Very strict protocols must be observed by those staff leading and supervising sporting activities, and pupils themselves must also appreciate the importance of following clear directions and instructions from the teaching staff.

If whistles are used by staff to get an activity to stop, particularly throwing events such as shot and javelin, it has to be ensured that all pupils have heard the whistle and have complied with the direction in question. Segregation of event-specific activities is essential for the safety of pupils and staff.