'Sad day for journalism' as C4 whistleblower suspended

A science teacher who secretly filmed shocking scenes of pupil misbehaviour for a Channel 4 documentary was found guilty of unprofessional conduct today.

A General Teaching Council panel ruled that Alex Dolan, who also exposed apparent attempts to dupe Ofsted inspectors, breached the trust of pupils and abused her position while recording secret footage at four schools in London and Leeds in 2005.

In its judgment, the panel said it did not accept that the public interest issues raised by the film justified the use of covert filming.

Sitting in Birmingham, panel chairman Ralph Ullmann said: “We do not accept that there were no other means by which they could have been brought to the attention of the public.”

Dolan, from Cambridge, denied one allegation of unacceptable professional conduct, telling the hearing that she acted in the best interests of pupils by highlighting matters of public interest.

She told the conduct committee that her motives were entirely honourable and that she made the film to highlight the plight of children being failed by the education system.

In its ruling, the panel accepted that Dolan believed she was acting as a voice for pupils.

But Ullmann said: “We have concluded that her actions, given her registered teacher status, were ultimately misguided.

“We are satisfied that covert filming of pupils by a registered teacher is unacceptable, other than in wholly exceptional circumstances.

“For a teacher, who holds a privileged position in relation to pupils, to secretly film them for purposes of his or her own, takes advantage of them and thereby breaches those pupils’ trust.”

The panel said that the making of the programme appeared to have been approached in a responsible manner but it did not accept that there were “exceptional circumstances” to justify covert filming.

The undercover investigation conducted by Dolan, part of the Dispatches series, was broadcast in July 2005 after a High Court judge refused to issue an injunction sought by Leeds City Council, ruling that the programme served important public interests.

The film showed appalling classroom behaviour, including pupils fighting in class, swearing, running on tables and refusing to work.

It also highlighted alleged attempts by teaching staff to “hoodwink” Ofsted inspectors during the watchdog’s visit to a Leeds school.

The programme’s executive producer told the GTC hearing that the documentary had exposed the “real face” of the schools where Dolan worked as a supply teacher.

During the covert filming, a 15-year-old girl said one of the schools had gone through 26 supply teachers in recent months and she was so angry that she was writing to Tony Blair.

Dolan also received the backing of the former head of Ofsted, Chris Woodhead, who was the Chief Inspector of Schools in England from 1994 until 2000.

Giving evidence to the panel in November, Woodhead said: “It is highly in the public interest that parents, teachers and the politicians responsible for schools and education understand the reality of what is happening in classrooms.”

Kevin Sutcliffe, the deputy head of news and current affairs at Channel 4 and the commissioning editor of the dispatches series, also gave evidence to the committee.

“As a whistleblower, Alex Dolan carried out a very positive and worthwhile investigation,” he said.

“It is unfair and wrong to then discipline the whistle-blower in these circumstances. The messenger should not be shot.”

The schools featured in the broadcast, which obscured the identities of pupils, were not referred to by name during the misconduct hearing despite already being in the public domain.

Dolan, who was suspended from the teaching register for 12 months, said she was “shocked and saddened” that the panel found her guilty of unacceptable professional conduct for raising matters of vital public interest.

She said she still considered that she acted fairly and in the wider public interest in exposing the damage done by disruptive behaviour in the classroom.

In a statement released by Channel 4, Dolan stood by her decision to make the documentary.

“This is a sad day for investigative journalism,” Dolan said.

“Programmes like Dispatches have an important role to play in drawing to the attention of the public matters of concern whether these are in hospitals, within the police force or in schools.

“I find it beyond comprehension that the GTC can spend three years investigating me when they should be looking on their own doorstep.

“Instead they have decided to sweep it under the carpet and persecute the whistle-blower.”

Dolan also accused the GTC of failing to face up to and deal with the serious problems that the film uncovered.

“The GTC conduct committee are out of touch with what really concerns teachers, parents and pupils and have missed a chance to act as a catalyst for change,” she said.

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