Over a third (38%) of school and college staff said a member of staff in their current school or college has had a false allegation made against them by a pupil, according to an Association of Teachers and Lecturers' survey* (ATL). And over a fifth (23%) said a false allegation had been made by a pupils' parent or family member.
During their career working in education, more than a one in five (22%) school and college staff have had a false allegation made against them by a pupil and one in seven (14%) by a pupils' parent or family member.
Of those staff who had faced false allegations, most (69%) said the allegations related to when they were working with a class or group of pupils, while a quarter (24%) said it was when pupils were at school or college but not in lessons. Only four staff said the false allegations were made on social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
In the most recent cases, half (50%) the staff said the allegation against them was dismissed by the school or college. Only 10 ATL members said their most recent cases were referred to a local safeguarding children's board or service, and only 14 said the police were notified of the allegation.
Virtually all education staff (94%) think everyone working in education should have the right to anonymity until charged, with this right extended to support staff and those working in further education. This would help protect staff who are falsely accused from having their careers ruined and lives blighted. As one member said: "false allegations wreck careers and there is a right to 'innocent until proven guilty'". And a primary teacher in a state school in England said: "I appreciate that allegations by children should be taken seriously, but equally so should the possibility that the accused is totally without blame."
Kathryn Booth, who is proposer of the debate calling for anonymity for support staff**, a member of ATL's Support Staff Members' Advisory Group and joint branch secretary in Dorset, said: "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."
Several members said there had been an increase in the number of false allegations made by pupils, often because the pupils did not like being told off by school or college staff.
A state secondary teacher in Worcestershire said: "After 22 years in teaching I feel very vulnerable now, as pupils twist things that are said and make serious comments - they do not see the serious manner of their allegation when in fact it is their behaviour we are challenging."
And several staff said the fear of false allegations was one of the reasons they are planning to stop working in schools and colleges. A primary teacher in a state school in Kent said: "The increasing occurrence of allegations is one reason why I will be leaving the profession sooner than I would like to. Poor parental discipline is leading to children always wanting their way. Unable to discipline children without a comeback has meant this sort of incident will escalate and very good teachers will be driven out when they are most needed."
David Guiterman, ATL's branch secretary in Cornwall and proposer of the debate about the time it takes to resolve allegations about safeguarding children***, said: "Even if the allegation is shown to be false it leaves a lasting scar. In a local case a member decided to resign even though the allegation was shown to be false. He did not want to carry on lecturing."
Many staff complained that their school or college had not been as supportive as they could have been. Only 43% of staff were largely or totally happy with how their school or college dealt with the most recent false allegation against them.
A member of support staff in a state primary school in Hertfordshire said: "I was disciplined, removed from the child and given a written warning- all without ever being told what it was that I had supposedly done wrong. My job role was changed. I no longer worked with the child in question. A member of staff resigned over the way I was treated. I left the post within two months."
A primary teacher in a state school in the South West said: "Despite a class full of witnesses (both children and a teaching assistant) the allegation was continued and my classroom practice was monitored for the next six months."
A primary teacher in a state school in Hertfordshire said: "It was established immediately that the allegation against me was false but I felt that everyone was talking about me. I couldn't sleep. I was afraid to be in the class, I couldn't face doing my job. I ended up mentally ill over it. My head teacher threatened me that if another allegation was made I would be suspended."
And members also said schools were so anxious to be seen to be protecting children that they were not treating their staff fairly. A secondary teacher in a state school in Lewisham said: "Often the school wants to 'be seen to have acted' and even though the allegation against me was false they insisted on a restorative justice conference. The behaviour of the student which led to the allegations was never investigated."
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: "It is only right and proper that children are protected and their welfare and safety must always come first, 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.
"All schools and colleges need to have clear, timely and fairly administered policies to investigate allegations against staff. And they need to make sure innocent staff receive the support and protection they need so that their careers and lives are not irretrievably damaged by a false allegation.
"We call on the police and local safeguarding boards to work harder to resolve cases and to protect the rights of education staff. And we call on the Government to change the law to give all education staff the same rights to anonymity until charged - without this, innocent teaching assistants, school librarians and lab technicians as well as assistants, lecturers and managers in further education risk having their lives blighted unnecessarily."
Additional member quotes:
A teacher in England said: "My late husband was falsely accused by a child he taught. Though the Crown Prosecution Service held that there was no case to answer, he was a broken man. He returned to work briefly, but had lost his nerve. The false accusation of one child, who was in an abusive home situation, wrecked our family life. My husband died of a sudden heart attack in his fifties."
A primary teacher in a state school in the North West said: "The child was backed 100% by parents. The child, brother and parents were known in the locality as well as at school for false accusations and attempts to claim monetary rewards for their allegations. I was not the first he made unsubstantiated allegations against."
A member of staff in an independent school in England said: "The child admitted he was making up the allegation of bullying because I had told him off for a genuine offence. At the same time, he alleged that another colleague had locked him in a cupboard and not fed him for three days, and this blatantly wrong allegation was investigated with the same rigour. My colleague and I now have a letter in our file which says that we were the subject of allegations which were subsequently proved not to be genuine."
A teacher in state schools in the North East said: "I've noticed an increased pressure not to tell students to practice music as phone calls from parents lean towards saying I'm "bullying" the child. I now lower expectations and accept that if a child does not wish to learn, I'm not prepared to risk my job by asking them to practice."
A primary teacher in a state school in Shropshire said: "I'm glad the school backed me up in relation to the alleged incident (telling off for being rude and swearing in class). It's a shame the parents still bear a grudge! Discipline was the issue here!"
A secondary teacher in London said: "I felt I was not believed entirely, felt awkward teaching the student again, yet within three more weeks he was excluded for a similar accusation about another member of staff."
A primary teacher in the South East said: "A parent accused me of collusion with his child and estranged wife to discredit him. Some sort of revenge tactic on his part."
* ATL had responses between 19 February and 10 March 2015 from 685 members working as support staff, teachers, lecturers, heads and principals in state-funded and independent schools, sixth form colleges and further education colleges in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
To view the full press release and stats click here.
Notes to editors
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) is an independent, registered trade union and professional association, representing approximately 170,000 teachers, headteachers, lecturers and support staff in maintained and independent nurseries, schools, sixth form, tertiary and further education colleges in the United Kingdom.
ATL exists to help members, as their careers develop, through first rate research, advice, information and legal advice.
ATL is affiliated to the Trades Union Congress (TUC), Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE) and Education International (EI). ATL is not affiliated to any political party and seeks to work constructively with all the main political parties.