Sexual relationships between teachers and pupils aged 16 and over have been happening for a long time. Similarly, for a long time, there has been a feeling that, once at the age of consent, a sexual relationship between consenting adults – irrespective of the student/teacher relationship – is not one into which the law should intrude. Parliament has seen otherwise and since 2001, there have been specific ‘abuse of trust’ offences.
Some teachers get into sexual relationships with students who are under the age of 16. This post is not concerned with such cases and is not about revisiting whether sexual activity with children is wrong.
The law is clear. A sexual relationship between someone who is in a position of trust and a person to whom that trust extends, is criminal.
The 2003 Act amended the law in relation to position of trust offences. It enacted the following offences:
- s 16 (abuse of trust: sexual activity with a child)
- s 17 (abuse of trust: causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity)
- s 18 (abuse of trust: sexual activity in the presence of a child)
- s 19 (abuse of trust: causing a child to watch a sex act)
It is worth noting that the offences cover children and young persons up to the age of 18 and so extend beyond the 16 and 17 year olds with which this post is concerned.
Of course, 18 year olds can still be at school which raises the issue of whether that protection should extend beyond the age of 18. Where a student has a September birthday (and so is aged 18 for most of their final year of school) they are afforded less protection than a student with an August birthday (who will have left school before turning 18).
The offences are concerned with a range of behaviour, not just intercourse. SOA 2003 s 78 states that ‘Penetration, touching or any other activity is sexual if a reasonable person would consider that—
(a) whatever its circumstances or any person’s purpose in relation to it, it is because of its nature sexual, or
(b) because of its nature it may be sexual and because of its circumstances or the purpose of any person in relation to it (or both) it is sexual.’
Sentences and consequences of conviction
For all four offences, the maximum sentence is 5 years and all four offences are specified for the purposes of the CJA 2003 dangerousness provisions. Upon a conviction for one of these offences, an offender will be subject to the notification requirements under the 2003 Act and is liable to disqualification from working with children.
There can be no confusion that Parliament views this behaviour as extremely serious.
Sex crimes are there to protect children and young adults from themselves and others. However immature the teacher may be, it is his responsibility not to go about having sex however much he may fancy her or fancy to have sex with her. It really is all so banal. If a teacher provides comfort to child who is unhappy at home, sticking his penis in her vagina is hardly the solution to that child’s problems. Similarly, where a teacher provides friendship to a young adult, the inequality between teacher and student means that it is inappropriate for that relationship to become a sexual one, notwithstanding the ability of the student to consent to sexual acts.
Is it always abusive?
Those who seek to justify relationships between students aged 16+ and teachers suggest that a student is not always ‘vulnerable’ and that there is not an automatic inequality between teacher and student.
The law disagrees. Consider a situation where a teacher is vulnerable (perhaps there are mental health problems, personal issues or stress) and an almost-18-year-old student is particularly mature, and pursues the relationship. That teacher would, if prosecuted, be guilty.
With such stark consequences, yet not infrequent occurrences of such behaviour, should schools, LEAs and the unions do more?
Is it just an occupational hazard?
It has been suggested that for those who choose to teach students aged 16+, it is an inherent risk of the job, that such a relationship may develop.
If that is so, there is even greater need to offer additional support, awareness and training to staff in positions of trust in relation to those aged 16+.
Lack of support
On 7 October 2013 BBC Radio 4 ran a half hour programme about this issue. The programme featured a teacher who claimed she had fallen in love with her 16 year old pupil. They now live together. She suggested, supported by others, that there was a total lack of support for teachers who find themselves in this situation.
A head teacher at a state school in the West Midlands discussed ‘vulnerable teachers’ and in particular young teachers who, being very close in age to those over whom they act in loco parentis, find themselves in situations where they do not want to discipline students who may ‘push the boundaries’ or over step the mark when it comes to such behaviour.
The Radio 4 programme posed more of a moral than legal question as to the rights and wrongs of student/teacher relationships over the aged of 16. However, being just a few weeks into the school year, teachers should be under no illusion that any sexual relationship – penetrative or not – exposes them to the risk of conviction for a serious sexual offence, the consequences of which will be life-long.
Is it time for schools, LEAs, teachers and the unions to do their homework and rethink how they deal with student/teacher relationships?