Convicted Teachers (Employment)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 13th April 1970.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Armstrong.]

11.18 p.m.

Photo of Sir Cyril Black Sir Cyril Black , Wimbledon

I am glad to have this opportunity, even at this comparatively late hour, to raise the problems that arise in connection with teachers in State schools who are convicted of criminal offences.

I want to make particular reference to two difficult and distressing cases which have arisen quite recently in my constituency, cases which have caused grave concern to the local education authority, co the parents of the children concerned, to the public at large and to me as Member of Parliament for the division and as vice-chairman of the education committee. I do not propose to mention the names of the two individuals concerned. I do not think that any useful purpose would be served by doing that. The Minister knows about the cases to which I refer, and I think that it is kinder and more considerate to the individuals that I should not mention their names tonight. I can identify the cases by saying that one is that of a headmaster and the other is that of an assistant master. That is as far as I need go by way of identification.

In the first case, a vacancy occurred in February, 1968, in one of the Church of England schools in my constituency, for a headmaster. The position was advertised in the normal way, a number of applicants were interview and a selection made. The references of the man to whom the appointment was offered were taken up in the normal way. On this occasion, there was a double check because not only did the local education authority make its own exhaustive inquiries but the Church of England authorities, who were also concerned because this is a Church of England school, made such inquiries as they could through the Church channels available to them. I want to mention what I think is a relevant fact, that the individual concerned had, of course, the teacher's service record which is necessary to everyone engaged in teaching and that this contained no reference to the matter to which I shall refer.

After having served as headmaster of the school for five terms, this man was prosecuted in the local magistrates' court and admitted putting £104 of the school holiday fund in his own pocket; he admitted collecting money for books, etc., which he failed to put into the school accounts; and he admitted writing a personal cheque for £60 for school meals, which cheque was dishonest. He was given a suspended prison sentence by the court in respect of these admitted offences.

But what caused such great concern apart from the concern caused by his latest misdeeds was the fact that, in the course of the court proceedings, it emerged that, when serving as a headmaster in a school in the West Country, this same man in 1961 was sent to prison for six months having pleaded guilty to eight charges of fraudulent conversion and having asked for 272 other cases to be taken into consideration. These are the facts relating to the first of the two cases.

The second case relates to an assistant master who was also engaged by the local education authority in my constituency and in respect of whom satisfactory references were received and whose teacher's service record contained no adverse reference to him. In 1968, he pleaded guilty to wilfully exposing to view an obscene print and using insulting behaviour to the police. In the course of the court proceedings, it came out that, in 1961, in another court he had pleaded guilty to committing an act of indecency in a public place and—no evidence had been called—mercifully, I think, for him—in respect of the more serious charge which had been brought against him—of committing an act of gross indecency. I mention in passing that, having left, as of course he had to do, the service of my education authority, this man moved to the North and, within a matter of weeks, I am informed, obtained employment there in another teaching position.

Now I come to the Secretary of State's part in these two cases, which is really the matter with which the House is concerned tonight. In the case of the headmaster, the Secretary of State knew of the very serious earlier court case but reinstated the man in the teaching profession notwithstanding the earlier offences. In the assistant master's example the Minister did not know of the 1961 case. It was not brought to his notice and, of course, he cannot be blamed for not having known of the matter, because no one had reported it to him. But when the 1968 case was brought to the Minister's notice, along with the 1961 case, he considered both together in reaching a decision about the future of the assistant master concerned and decided not to debar this man from further employment as a teacher.

I want to make it clear that I think that it is right that a man or woman who has fallen by the way should be helped by society to be rehabilitated, so far as possible, after conviction. I think that I may claim to have done what I can in this respect to help a good many men in these circumstances. But I emphatically do not believe that this necessarily means that a man should be reinstated in the particular kind of employment in which he was formerly engaged. There are certain professions with a special status in which it is more necessary than with some other employments that only people with absolute and unquestioned integrity should be engaged. Teaching is a profession of that kind in which people with a criminal record should not be reinstated except in the most special circumstances.

The Minister admitted in his correspondence with me that he withheld information from the prospective employers about the case of the headmaster for the reason—and I quote his letter: Once I have decided that a teacher may be allowed to re-enter the profession, I would not consider it right to prejudice his chances of re-employment by drawing attention to the reasons for a gap in his teaching service. That means quite clearly that the Minister is saying, "If I told a prospective employer what this man's record was, no education authority would employ him, and because it is my intention that he should be employed again as a teacher, I consider it right to conceal the information about his conviction from authorities which may be minded to employ him."

I take a serious view of the Minister's policy in this matter. If I as an ordinary citizen, not possessing the immunity that the Minister possesses, had been asked to give a reference for the headmaster, and if I had known about his criminal convictions and I had given him a satisfactory reference, without disclosing the relevant fact known to me that he had served a prison sentence, there is no doubt on the basis of case law that an employer who suffered loss by reason of my omission could bring an action against me in the courts to recover from me by way of damages any loss that that employer had suffered. A person giving a reference is under a duty to disclose every relevant fact that may weigh in the mind of a prospective employer and help him to reach the right decision about whether to employ a person.

It is interesting to note that those of us who have served on magistrates' benches, as I have for many years, know perfectly well that in the case of a man applying for a publican's or a bookmaker's licence the police invariably bring up any convictions on his record. I think that it is quite certain that if this headmaster, with his criminal record, sought to get a publican's or a book-maker's licence, no bench of magistrates would be likely to grant it to him.

Are we to be asked to take the view that it is less important to have people of unblemished record and integrity as headmasters of schools than to have this kind of record in the case of publicans and bookmakers?

I have served on education committees continuously since 1942. I have played a part in interviewing and engaging many teachers, and I have always asked myself, when considering a particular applicant for a job: is this man or this woman, on the facts as I know them, a person to whom I would wish to entrust the education of a child or a grandchild of mine? I believe that that is the test that should be applied when engaging either a head teacher or an assistant teacher. One has only to ask that question in either of these cases to know the answer. No education committee and no parents knowing the facts would agree that either of these people should have been employed as a head teacher or as an assistant teacher.

I believe that it is of the utmost importance that the teacher's image should be unblemished in the eyes of the public, the parents and the children. The first of these cases, the headmaster's case, attracted enormous publicity both in the local Press and in the national Press. I believe that such cases do immense harm to the teaching profession.

A number of teachers in my constituency have expressed to me their sense of disgust about this case. They complain that it has tarnished the image of the whole profession. That a man who was convicted of eight cases of larceny and asked for 272 others to be taken into consideration should have been appointed as a headmaster at a subsequent time they find both unacceptable and revolting.

Think of the way in which the faith of the children in that school in their teachers is shaken when nearly every newspaper contains a record of the fact that a headmaster whom they have known has a criminal record of this kind and has been convicted on many charges of dishonesty. Parents are, of course, shocked, and it is difficult for the education authority to satisfy them that it did not know and could not have ascertained the true character and record of the man whom they appointed to take charge of the school.

I do not know whether the Minister can give me information on this point—I ought perhaps to have given notice about it—but I should be interested to know how many teachers with criminal records are known to the Minister to be in the employment of local education authorities. If the information is not available, I have no doubt that it could be sent on to me.

11.34 p.m.

Photo of Miss Joan Lestor Miss Joan Lestor , Eton and Slough

I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black) did not name the two teachers to whom he referred. Had he done so, it would have made the debate even more painful than I find it tonight.

I should like, first, to correct one point mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, because I do not think that he meant it. He said that he did not believe that it should necessarily follow that a teacher who had committed an offence and then reapplied should be reinstated by the profession. Neither does the Secretary of State. It does not follow that he necessarily shall be reinstated.

Nor, I hope the hon. Member will accept, should it follow that at all times and under all circumstances teachers who have committed offences should be automatically excluded from the profession, although I believe that that is really what he was getting at.

Photo of Miss Joan Lestor Miss Joan Lestor , Eton and Slough

Although he based himself mainly on two cases which have come to his notice, the hon. Gentleman really mounted a general criticism of the administration of the misconduct regulations. I shall, therefore, before dealing with the two particular cases, make a few general points.

The Secretary of State has full powers, in connection with regulations, to determine teachers to be unsuitable as a result of their being convicted of a criminal offence or on grounds of some other form of misconduct. There is a well-established procedure for the circulation among employers of a "black list" of teachers determined by him to be unsuitable, and there are arrangements for securing that black-listed teachers are not employed either within the public system of education or in the private system, although the procedure in the independent sector is somewhat different.

The word "misconduct" is interpreted as meaning "infamous conduct in a professional respect". This is the phrase normally used in the enactments which have established professional bodies in other fields. In this respect, therefore, the teaching profession is in line with other learned professions.

In exercising his powers in these matters, the Secretary of State has to strike a balance. On the one hand, he must be concerned, above all, with the possible dangers to pupils—the hon. Gentleman stressed this—which may be caused by the employment of teachers with a record of misconduct, particularly if that involves sexual matters, and, in a more general sense, with the good name of the profession, on which in the last resort the effectiveness of the education system must depend.

On the other hand, however, the power to bar a person from his chosen career for the rest of his life is one which must, obviously, be very carefully used. Moreover, most of the misconduct cases which come before the Secretary of State do so as a result of a conviction in the courts. In a sense, it is punishing a teacher twice if, in addition to paying whatever penalty is imposed by the court, he is further punished through the Secretary of State's action under the misconduct regulations, especially if that punishment amounts to exclusion from the career which he has chosen, and for which he has been trained, normally at considerable public expense.

Many of the cases which come up are very difficult, and, as I have said, there is usually a balance to be struck. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman sees that it is necessary or desirable that any such balance should be struck but, in his view, there should be automatic exclusion from the teaching profession. In my view, however, it follows that, if as we do, we make judgments on these cases, the decision we come to must often be arguable; and I accept that. The concern of successive Secretaries of State has been to regard the safety of the children as the paramount consideration, but, subject to that, to temper justice with mercy, and, in particular, to avoid either vindictiveness or undue moral rigidity.

I think that I can claim that down the years the way this jurisdiction has been exercised has been entirely acceptable to the teaching profession and to public opinion generally. For example, the Secretary of State recently establishlished a broadly-based working party of representatives of the teaching profession and of the employers to make recommendations for the establishment of a teaching council to exercise a measure of professional self-government for the teaching profession.

While recommending that such a council should exercise the misconduct jurisdiction, as other professional councils exercise it, the working party recorded that it was satisfied that the present system had worked fairly and satisfactorily, and that the Secretary of State had exercised his powers in a way that was fair to individual teachers while, at the same time, protecting the pupils and the good name of the teaching profession.

Further proof is that, so far as the Department can trace, this is the first Adjournment debate for many years on this subject, although it is obviously one in which hon. Members, as champions of their constituents, might be expected to show interest. I may add, in passing, that it has always been the practice that the decision to declare a teacher unsuitable and so exclude him from his profession should be taken personally by a Minister.

I turn, now, to the matters which arise from the two cases about which the hon. Gentleman had previously written to the Secretary of State, and which he has brought up tonight. I am sure that he will agree that I should not go into detail, but deal in more general terms.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman's misgivings about the two cases arise in respect of two different points on the general question of misconduct. In the one case, as the hon. Gentleman said, there was a minor conviction in 1961, which was not reported at the time, and so we did not know of it. The second conviction took place in 1968, and resulted in a conditional discharge. It was fully considered by officials, and resulted in a grave warning, but not in exclusion. The decision to give such a warning is, in fact, delegated to officials, but since this arose I have looked at the case myself and I am satisfied that it was the right decision.

Since the teacher concerned is still in service, I should prefer to say no more now, except that the nature of the offence and the medical evidence do not suggest that there is any danger to the pupils of the teacher concerned. He has been warned that any further misconduct will make it unlikely that he will again escape exclusion from the profession, and we hope that he will take notice of this.

The second case is one in which no sexual element at all is involved. It is concerned with theft and fraudulent conversion. In this case there was a conviction in 1961, but my predecessor agreed to the reinstatement of this teacher in 1963. Further similar offences took place in 1969, and the teacher has now been excluded.

There are two points which, generally, I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider. First, is it right to have any system of reinstatement? I believe that this is where we part company. Personally, just because exclusion from the profession is such a very serious penalty, I would say unhesitatingly that it was right to have a system of reinstatement under certain circumstances. Exclusion may often result from charges brought in consequence of a single action. It may even be a shock, and in itself prevent any further misconduct. The Department has, therefore, for many years been prepared, after a suitable lapse of time—normally settled in the light of the nature of the offence—to consider a claim for reinstatement, in other words, for the teacher to resume his career.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider that reinstatement is not allowed lightly, and the number of people excluded following reinstatement, in which he was interested, is not numerous, as I shall explain later. Medical evidence is almost always required before reinstatement takes place, as well as personal references from people who have had recent and extensive contact with the teacher. Our judgment has mostly been proved to be sound, and we are rarely disappointed.

Over the past five years, about 18 teachers a year have been reinstated, and no more than one a year has had to be excluded again for further misconduct. Those figures provide the kind of information which the hon. Gentleman wanted to enable him to make some sort of assessment of this. If he wants further figures, he will have to write to the Department, or put down a Question.

The second point is whether some indication should be made available to prospective employers that a teacher has been excluded and then reinstated. I can see arguments for this, which the hon. Gentleman set out fully in his letter to my right hon. Friend, and which he has repeated today, but I do not accept them. Indeed, it seems to me to be an essential part of the reinstatement procedure that no black mark should be permanently made against a reinstated teacher in any Departmental record made available to employing authorities.

Surely a second chance should mean what it says, bearing in mind that before we take the step of reinstatement we have done all that we possibly can to make sure that we are unlikely to be making a mistake. There is perhaps an analogy with what happens in general employment to a man released from prison. He may well tell a prospective employer of his circumstances, and he may be wise to do so, but it would be wrong that there should be some automatic procedure by which an employer was told that a man was an ex-prisoner. He has purged his offence to society, in that he has been to prison, and he should have a chance to stand on his own merits. The same must surely be true of reinstated teachers when the precautions which I have stated have already been taken. If we felt that there was some danger to pupils, of course we should not be reinstating.

I can take the analogy further. An outside employer may well want to make some inquiries about a man's background. Similarly, the Department would not think it proper to withhold information about a teacher's previous exclusion or warning from any prospective employing authority. There is no contradiction between that and not automatically notifying the circumstances to an employer. It is matter of what in fairness is due to the teacher by not volunteering information about his past and what it is right to tell an authority who make a direct inquiry as to character, or, for example, an unexplained interval in teaching.

In a field such as this, decisions must of their nature be arguable unless we are to have a situation in which automatic exclusion follows any criminal offence which a teacher may commit. Common humanity must be balanced against high professional standards. As I have said, we have rarely been disappointed when reinstatements have taken place. Since I have been responsible in the last few months to my right hon. Friend for this work, I have studied a large number of these cases, both current and in the past, and I am very sensible of the decisions which we take. But I am also very impressed with the way in which they have been handled and the way in which we temper justice with mercy.

I think that the hon. Gentleman's criticisms perhaps reflect more on his own outlook and his own judgment than on the compassion of some of the Ministers who, in the past, have dealt with these cases from the point of view of humanity.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.