Proposals to give lifelong anonymity to teachers accused of committing criminal offences against children at their schools have become law after the Education Act 2011 received Royal Assent.
It means that teachers have become the first group of people in British legal history to be given automatic anonymity when they are accused of a criminal offence.
The anonymity ends only if the teacher is charged with a criminal offence, or a court agrees to an application that it is in the interests of justice that it should be lifted.
The anonymity also ends if the Education Secretary publishes information about the person who is the subject of the allegation in connection with an investigation or decision relating to the allegation, or if the General Teaching Council for Wales publishes information about the individual in connection with an investigation, hearing or decision on the allegation.
The individual teacher may also waive his or her anonymity.
The Act means that it is now unlawful to name a teacher who has been accused of assaulting or sexually abusing a child at his or her school if that teacher has not been charged with a criminal offence – even if the accusation is referred to in public, for example at an Employment Tribunal hearing at which the teacher claims unfair dismissal.
The coalition Government pushed the measure through despite considerable resistance in the House of Lords from Conservative Peer Lord Black of Brentwood and Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Phillips of Sudbury.
The Society of Editors and the Newspaper Society, which represents some 1,200 local and regional newspapers across the UK, also both campaigned against the legislation.
Society of Editors’ executive director Bob Satchwell warned recently in a letter to all members of the House of Lords that the proposal would make it “a criminal offence for anyone – pupil, parent, police, school, local authority, whistle-blower, media – even to inform parents or public that an identified teacher has admitted that the allegation is true and has resigned, or been disciplined, or even cautioned for the offence”.
The anonymity would “set a very dangerous precedent as people could be convicted for telling the truth”, he added.
‘Thin end of the wedge’
The proposal came under renewed attack on Monday, when the House of Commons considered the amendments to the Bill made during its passage through the House of Lords.
Education Select Committee chairman Graham Stuart condemned the restrictions as the “thin end of the wedge” and warned that they could lead to further curtailments of press freedom.
For the Government, education minister Nick Gibb said the move would end the “devastating consequences” for teachers who faced fabricated claims of abusing their position.
But shadow education spokesman Kevin Brennan pointed out that only 2% of allegations against teachers turned out to be malicious – and MPs also heard that only 15 malicious claims had been made by pupils in the past few years.
Stuart told the Commons on Monday that teachers should not receive any special protection from publicity.
He told Gibb: “I am concerned about press freedom and I would be grateful if you could set out the case as to why teachers should be specially given this exemption from publicity and why equally devastating allegations to another profession (would not be exempt)?
“This might be the thin end of the wedge in which we will see a great deal more press censorship and people will not be able to know allegations made against people in their local community.”
Gibb said that only teachers would be subject to anonymity orders so ministers could see how the reforms worked.
“We are talking about the effect on an individual and one individual suffering publicity about false allegations against them, that can have devastating consequences for them socially and career-wise,” Gibb told MPs.
“For that individual, it is of course one case too many. And of course the publicity that one case receives reverberates throughout the teaching profession and undermines morale and makes teachers unduly cautious about keeping discipline in our classrooms.
“If one is interested in the welfare of pupils in our schools, we have to make sure they are being taught in ordered and safe environments, free from bullying and free from other disruptive activities.
“We have been very careful in proceeding with this matter, taking in to account we have to preserve press freedom as well as protecting the integrity of teachers who are innocent until proven otherwise.”
The changes were part of the Government efforts to give teachers the powers and confidence they need to enforce discipline in the classroom, Mr Gibb added.
Brennan pledged Labour’s support for moves to give teachers facing allegations anonymity, but warned: “There is within this provision the possibility of there being unintended consequences.”
He also demanded protections for teachers at further education (FE) colleges and asked why the Government planned to protect teachers and not all school staff such as caretakers and dinner ladies, saying: “The impact of a publicly-reported, unproven allegation arises for these people too and they are equally damaging.
“I don’t quite understand why – other than limiting the numbers of people covered by this provision to limit its potential impact – teachers in FE colleges are not covered when teachers in sixth form schools dealing with people of the same age group, possibly teaching them exactly the same subjects, are covered.
“That seems to be an inconsistency.”
Stuart warned again of the reach of such restrictions, telling MPs: “One could see that a social worker dealing with children at risk could be equally devastated by publicity surrounding allegations towards them.”
He re-stated his reservations about teacher anonymity, saying: “All of us recognise the vulnerability of teachers to malicious allegations. It is not only from chatter around the school yard but chatter around the community. When an allegation is formally made and is reported in the newspaper it can have a devastating effect on their life.
“So I sympathise with where the Government is coming from on this but questions still remain. When I read the Newspaper Society’s submission, I must admit while I did not completely U-turn, it raised an awful lot of questions about where this should stop.
“I have yet to grasp the point of principle that limits it and justifies limiting it only to teachers and doesn’t give general protection to all sorts of professions and the public therefore lose their right to know what is going on.”
Tory Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) said: “I think most of us will have been struck by the number of teachers who we know, who have approved most strongly of this change in bringing in this anonymity, and these are teachers by the way for the avoidance of doubt, who would never in a million years be up to the sort of no good that we want to avoid.
“But there is something symbolic in doing this and saying that we understand the difficult position you have in keeping order in this little community and that you deserve our support and this type of anonymity.”
Tory Stephen McPartland (Stevenage) said he knew of some schools around the country where teaching assistants were put in charge of classrooms, but would “not have the protections within this Bill”.
It is not clear when section 13 of the Act will come into force – section 82 (5) states: “Before making an order bringing section 13 into force, the Secretary of State must consult the Welsh Ministers.”
Publication of anything which identifies a teacher who is alleged to have committed an offence against a pupil at his or her school is punishable on summary conviction by a fine of up to £5,000.
But it is a defence for anyone accused of publishing such information to show that at the time he or she was not aware, and did not suspect or have reason to suspect, that the publication included the information in question, or that he or she was not aware, and and did not suspect or have reason to suspect that the allegation had been made.