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To sir with love

October 8th, 2008

Dr Petra

Aside from the credit crunch, one thing that’s got the UK media hot under the collar is the question of whether teachers can have a romantic or sexual relationship with their pupils.

It all started last week when Chris Keates (general secretary of teacher’s union NASUWT) questioned whether it was appropriate to place teachers who’d a sexual relationship with pupils aged over 16 on the sex offenders register. This is undoubtedly a controversial question to ask, but not an unreasonable one.

Unfortunately the media interpreted the question in a slightly different way, with frantic headlines suggesting either that sex laws were ‘unfair’ to teachers or that ‘teachers should be allowed to have sex with their students’.

Cue lots of prurient headlines, mentions of gymslips, detention and seeing sir and a whole host of other coverage that played out like a dodgy porn film where teacher asks to see you after school. Coverage swung from being outraged and disgusted over pervert teachers to salivating over sexy sixth formers or seeing the whole thing as a bit of a joke.

So before we tackle this issue in depth let’s get the humour out the way, courtesy of Little Britain….

The problem with the media coverage of this issue is most papers seemed to assume teachers who have relationships with pupils always have sex (they don’t), are always male (they aren’t) and the pupils singled out for romantic attention are always girls (not so).

And that’s why this area can be so complicated. What do we do about teachers and pupils who engage in intimate chat via MSN but don’t have intercourse? Can we treat teachers who have a relationship with a pupil of the opposite sex in the same way as teachers who have a relationship with a pupil of the same sex – or will we be more judgemental of the latter? And why is it we always assume that teachers who have sex with pupils are a. always predatory and b. always male?

It is questions like these that mean we do need to have a conversation about this topic, but it’s very hard to do so when the print and broadcast media turn it into a ‘let’s hunt out the paedo/spot the lolita’ circus.

Clearly a teacher who has sex with a child under 16 is breaking the law (having sex with a minor) and most certainly should be punished for this and banned from teaching in the future.

But what about a teacher who has a relationship with a girl or boy aged over 16? Technically they aren’t breaking the law in terms of the age of consent but they are breaking the law around teacher/pupil relationships.

Since 2001 the law has stated it’s illegal for teachers to have a sexual relationship with any pupil at their school who is aged eighteen or younger. It does not exclude sexual relationships with pupils aged over 18 or who are attending another school.

Over the past seventeen years 129 teachers have been prosecuted for having a relationship with pupils (which, without demeaning this issue isn’t exactly a lot and makes me wonder if this really is worth all this debate). Some press coverage has suggested that up to 1,500 ‘intimate relationships’ between teachers and pupils occur annually – although given how sensitive this area is getting any accurate data on this area is going to be virtually impossible.

Pupils do find teachers attractive (I’m sure many of us can remember a crush on a particular teacher at school). And, although this is more taboo to say, teachers can also find pupils attractive too. It would be good to think we could create a safe space for teachers to talk about this should they need to, but in the current climate nobody would dare. So on that score Ms Keates is right to suggest a wider discussion of this topic.

However, a teacher is employed to do a particular job. They are acting in loco parentis and are there to oversee the safety and wellbeing of pupils in their care. If they are involved romantically and/or sexually with a pupil (or more than one pupil as sometimes can be the case) then they are not going to be able to offer the same levels of attention and care to all pupils under their tuition.

Ms Keates stated “it does seem a step too far, when there has been a consensual relationship, to put that person on the sex offenders register when, in fact, they could have a perfectly legitimate relationship with an 18-year-old at another school.”

And this is where I’m not sure she’s right. I think we have to judge this on a case-by-case basis. Certainly there will be situations where both parties consent, but consent in this situation is a fluid concept since we cannot ignore there is undoubtedly a power imbalance that favours the teacher more than the pupil. That’s not to say pupils in such a relationship don’t know their own minds, but there are issues about their current and future progress (not to mention that of their fellow students) that could be affected by such a relationship. It’s not just about fairness to the student/teacher but also to the other students under the teacher’s care.

Some teens aged between 16-18 are very mature, some are not. Much of the media coverage suggests these relationships are mostly between younger teachers and older students (e.g. a teacher in their mid twenties and a student in their late teens) but this isn’t always the case and even when it is some twenty somethings can be more mature than others. Let’s be honest here, most people in their mid-twenties upwards don’t want sexual relationships with teenagers. So if we don’t see this as appropriate within society generally are we really okay making exceptions when it’s a teacher pupil relationship? It’s perhaps not surprising that some critics of Ms Keates have suggested she seems to be treating this issue as though we are discussing an office romance rather than a relationship that could have more serious repercussions for many people.

In teacher/pupil relationships that go wrong there are many people who can be affected. The teacher – their reputation and career could be on the line. The school they work for. The pupil they’ve had the affair with and their family. And the other kids being taught by the teacher (and their families).

Clearly there’s a difference between a teacher who kisses a pupil at a school dance and a teacher who grooms children for sex. The former definitely should be disciplined for unprofessional behaviour, the latter should rightly go on the sex offenders register. So while I don’t think all teachers who have sex with pupils should automatically end up on the sex offenders register I don’t think it is appropriate for teachers to have relationships with pupils in their care.

Teacher/pupil attraction is something that comes up time and again for me in my agony aunt role. Girls want to know does the teacher who’s coming on to them truly care and is it okay to proceed with a relationship, or what to do when they feel they are being seduced by a teacher and they don’t like it.

My response to those who feel they are being coerced is always to recommend they speak to someone – another teacher, their parent/carer, or someone they can trust like the school nurse. But my response to girls who want a relationship with their teacher is to get them to think how this might work in reality.

Who would you socialise with? Your teachers friends or your friends – their mates will all be in their mid twenties or older, will they want to hang out with a teenager? And will your mates want to see your teacher outside school?

What will your parents make of the relationship? Will they be happy that your teacher wants to date you or have a sexual relationship? Would they prefer you to be with someone closer to your own age? Can you meet your teacher’s family?

Does the teacher you want to be with want to have your relationship recognised by friends or family (theirs or yours). If not, why not?

Outside school what will you have to talk about? How will the relationship develop as you grow (there will be many changes between 16-18 and your twenties – what if you change and they don’t?).

How can you be sure they are keen on you for you rather than you as a pupil? Will you be able to relax and trust them knowing they are with other pupils all day who they might also begin a relationship with?

What attracts you to each other? Would you find each other so desirable if you weren’t in a teacher/pupil situation? Or if they were a teacher but not based at your school/college?

The fact that teacher/pupil relationships raise questions like these (and many more) makes me feel that Ms Keates’ idea that a relationship between a teacher/pupil is possible is misplaced.

I’d welcome more flexibility in the law that might allow for schools to take action over teachers who have acted inappropriately but not abusively, but keep the law in place that stops you having a sexual relationship with a teacher. If we alter the law it means those who are being exploited by those in positions of care will not get support and legal redress.

Maybe I’m being idealistic here, but if a relationship is truly that important a teacher and pupil can do the right thing and put it on hold until the pupil is over eighteen. Something that’s worth waiting for can be managed in that way. It would avoid potential exploitation and might show someone genuinely cared rather than using a position of authority to take advantage, and it would indicate the teenager is able to make adult decisions and truly consent to a relationship on a more equal footing.

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