School for scandal
Who's letting 'teachers' like Amy Gehring loose in the classroom?
The legal trial of Amy Gehring, the 26-year-old Canadian supply teacher accused of having sex with three teenage pupils under the age of consent at a British school, has ended. But the political and media trial of the UK’s education system, teaching agencies and teachers’ behaviour everywhere goes on.
The court found Gehring not guilty of indecently assaulting her pupils. But we all know that something funny went on. Gehring admitted to types of behaviour that were mind-bogglingly ‘inappropriate’, and even if she were allowed to go on teaching in the UK, it would be a strange parent who wanted his or her 15-year-old son in her classroom. The UK press branded her a sexual predator; the Canadian press rallied round to stress her naivety, quoting a neighbour in Gehring’s hometown describing her as a ‘helpless puppy’ caught in an ‘attack of lies’ (1). Whatever way you want to read it, it is clear that this was a woman who had not a clue what it meant to be a teacher.
But whose fault is this? What broader lessons – if any – can be drawn from this torrid (non-) affair?
Predictably, there have been calls for greater regulation of supply teachers, and the agencies that provide them. Yet as New Labour ministers have forcefully argued, due to recent legislation there is already regulation a-plenty. The problem, in this case, was that something went wrong. Following allegations of indecent behaviour made against Ms Gehring at a Surrey school, she was suspended. The police took no further action, but Surrey county council’s Child Protection Team, made up of social workers and the police, sent a letter warning TimePlan, the teacher supply agency that had Gehring on its list, that Gehring was not fit to teach. TimePlan did not act upon the information.
So it was TimePlan’s screw-up – and heads have already rolled, with the swift dismissal of the staff responsible. No matter how much regulation exists, there will always be the odd one or two who slip through the net. Yet the discussion was never going to end there.
In the political and media imagination, the Gehring case symbolises all that seems to be rotten about the UK education system. In a society that is resolutely paranoid about potential paedophiles, any activity that involves adults working with children is a constant source of anxiety. Schools are generally considered less dodgy than, say, youth clubs or sports clubs – all of which have found themselves mired in scandal and new regulation over the past few years. After all, while the existence of a Scout group or youth cricket club might seem an optional luxury, you’ve got to have teachers.
Now, however, the panic over having the wrong kind of adults working with children has coincided with another panic close to parents’ hearts: that there don’t seem to be enough teachers to teach their kids. Younger generations of university graduates are being systematically turned off teaching, and all the bribes and adverts the government aims at them seem not to be working.
The basic recipe behind the turn-off factor is not hard to work out. Add the suspicion surrounding adults working with children to the prescription and bureaucracy at the heart of the government’s education agenda, plus the commitment required to train as a teacher in a world that is more encouraging of gap years and portfolio careers, and it is kind of surprising that anybody wants to teach at all.
Yet at the same time as it bangs its head against the brick wall of teacher shortages, this is a government that has encouraged parents to be obsessed with the need for small classes, and caused a mega-headache for schools. Without a trace of irony, education secretary Estelle Morris gets shrill about how TimePlan is solely to blame for the Gehring fiasco (2), on the same day that the schools watchdog the Office for Standards in Education warns that teacher shortages may threaten rising standards (3). It wasn’t a teaching agency that caused the scrabble to pack classrooms with supply teachers, classroom assistants and other band-aid measures, in a desperate attempt to keep today’s teaching ticking over with no clear view as to how to solve the deeper problems of schooling tomorrow.
The use of supply teachers and classroom assistants does not mean an endless supply of paedophiles in schools. The high-profile character of the Gehring case should indicate how rare such problems are. But the use of staff who are not trained to be teachers, or who teach to plug a temporary gap in their lives (or in Ms Gehring’s case, apparently, to help get over a failed relationship), does indicate the degree of cop-out that is going on. As society fails to excite people about what it means to be a full-time teacher, dedicated to developing young people’s minds and expanding their horizons, it resorts to employing people as (in Ms Gehring’s words) ‘glorified babysitters’, who are expected to do little more than not behave inappropriately. It’s hardly an inspiring job – and it’s hardly education.
The reaction to the Gehring case is not about whether most teachers know the boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate sexual behaviour. As Richard Morrison put it in The Times (London), Gehring got up to the kind of things with her students that ‘should have struck even the greenest teacher as being unwise’ (4). The angst relates to a broader confusion over what teaching today is really all about. You’re not supposed to have sex with your pupils – but what are you supposed to do with them?
(1) Townspeople happy teacher acquitted of sex charges, say she is welcome home, Canadian Press, 4 February
(2) Minister heaps blame on teacher agency, BBC News Online, 5 February 2002
(3) Watchdog praises teaching standards, BBC News Online, 5 February 2002
(4) Inappropriate behaviour, The Times (London), 5 February 2002
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