UK Teacher Discipline Anonymity a ‘Threat to Free Speech’

The Society of Editors warned that rules being introduced in a new Education Bill set a "dangerous precedent" by gagging the media and blocking proper scrutiny of cases, writes Graeme Paton at the Telegraph.

The Society of Editors was formed by a merger of the Guild of Editors and the Association of British Editors in April 1999. It aims to uphold the universal right to freedom of expression, the importance of the vitality of the news media in a democratic society and promotion of press and broadcasting freedom and the public's right to know.

The comments came as the House of Lords prepared to debate the proposed legislation on Tuesday.

Clause 13 of the Bill – if passed – would give accused staff the right to full anonymity until they have been formally charged with an offense, as reported at Education News earlier this week.

It comes amid fears over a wave of false allegations of abuse or physical assault made by pupils and parents against teachers in recent years. A report last week by the Department for Education claimed that as many as half of claims were unfounded.

Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, said:

"Every allegation of abuse must be taken seriously, but some children think they can make a false allegation without any thought to the consequences for the teacher concerned. When these allegations are later found to be malicious or unfounded, the damage is already done. It can have a devastating impact and ruin a teacher's career and private life."

However, in a letter to peers, the Society of Editors said that the measures would be a "gross inhibition on freedom of speech: it would set a very dangerous precedent as people could be convicted for telling the truth".

Bob Satchwell, executive director, said:

"It will be 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… It would also be an offence to report that the identified teacher had been exonerated."

The letter urged peers to support amendments tabled by Lord Phillips of Sudbury that would modify the Government's plans to "avoid setting dangerous precedents". Mr Satchwell insisted that malicious allegations by pupils were rare and the laws of libel, contempt and confidence already restricted their repetition and publication, writes Paton.

He added:

"As it stands the Bill could mean that an accused teacher might move from one school to another without allegations being properly recorded and aired if there is not a criminal charge… We urge you to listen to your colleagues who have raised this matter and to join them in asking the Government to modify their plans to avoid setting dangerous precedents."

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