Monday, 26 October 2009

"False" allegations in schools

[trigger warning]

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers has recently released the results of a study about "false allegations" made against its members. Reading the reports in the news, I couldn't help feeling the discussion was moving in an all too familiar direction.

The comparision with allegations of false allegations of rape seems rather obvious, not least because there's going to be an unpleasant range of overlap between "allegations of misconduct by school staff" and "allegations of rape and sexual assault", and it seems to be attracting much the same dubious lines of argument.

So, similarities. The teachers are in a position of power, the pupils are not. The consequences of reputation for false allegations are strongly emphasised (and I don't dispute, incidentally, that it would be very stressful to be in that position), whereas the effect on the children of incidents that lead to true allegations are barely mentioned: in the ATL press release (1250 words), only these 25 mention the possibility that accusations might be true: "We all accept the protection of children is paramount, but that should not be at the expense of natural justice - school staff have rights too."

Their statistics seem rather dubious, too (which is another similarity). Ignoring the "don't know" responses (which is being generous, I think), the ratio is 50:18 believe that a false accusation has taken place in their school.

28% say that they have a false allegation made by a pupil against them personally, and 17% say that they have one made by a family member. We can assume some overlap between these two categories, though the results don't say how much. 368 of 1155 responded to the question asking how the allegation was treated, which is 32%.

Let's assume, for internal consistency, that everyone who had an allegation made against them answered 'yes' to "someone in my school has had an allegation made against them".1

So, if we take these figures at face value, about a third of staff have had a false allegation made against them. Of those who have not, then about a quarter know that someone else at their school has been the subject of one, about a quarter are confident enough that no-one has to say so, and half don't know for certain.

Let's take a large primary school with around 24 teaching and teaching-related staff. On average, 8 of those staff will have had a false allegation made, and 4 of the other staff will know of at least one of these cases. For a secondary school with around 120 staff, 40 will have had a false allegation, but only 20 others will be aware of any of these. (Incidentally, if these figures are accurate, then the confidentiality around the cases must be holding really well, which makes reputational damage less likely)

This seems somewhat unlikely. The press release doesn't say anything about how the survey data was gathered, but there's no polling/survey company named, which suggests it was internal, which makes me suspicious. ATL has 160,000 members, so 1155 is less than 1% of them. Looking around their website, it seems that their normal survey method is to rely on voluntary responses.

This, of course, means that there's no attempt at getting a representative sample, and there's far more incentive for people who have been the subject of a false allegation to reply to the survey. I think it's incredibly likely that the survey is going to significantly overstate the scale of the problem.

Similarly, the quoted situations in the press release are presumably near to the worst case (for the teachers - the worst case for a pupil makes most of those seem mild), rather than a representative sample of what actually happens.

The BBC article also includes the following, presumably from a previous press release:

Last year, the union, which has 160,000 members across the UK, said pupils who made malicious false allegations about teachers should be placed on a school register to protect other staff.

The union said these records should be forwarded if a pupil moves.

It also called for charges to be brought against children as young as 10 who made false allegations.

Given that schools do not have a good record on dealing with bullying, and given that there's already a significant inevitable power imbalance between teacher and pupil, I don't think it's at all a good idea to place more risks and obstacles in the way of someone wanting to report misconduct. Seriously, charges?

The ATL claims from the survey that 50% of false allegations were dismissed instantly. I wonder what percentage of true allegations are also dismissed instantly and mistakenly.

1 The survey asks about their current school in one, and them personally in another, so if the allegation happened to them at a previous school and they didn't know of any at their current school, they could answer "inconsistently". On the other hand, the strict wording of the question is not "has this taken place at your current school" but "has it happened to anyone working at your current school".