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Has teaching become puritanical?

This week a teacher has been sacked from his Northumberland school and barred from teaching for three years by the Teaching Regulation Agency for taking his sixth-form students to a strip club while on a school trip abroad.

While I’m not defending his actions, this incident does remind me of a couple of similar incidents I was involved in when I was pupil at school in the early 1970s. (I know… that's ancient history now…)

I was a seventeen year-old sixth former on a field trip in the Lake District with about 12 or 15 other classmates from my Liverpool comprehensive school. At the end of the week the teacher leading the trip – a man in his early forties who always maintained a professional distance from his students – came into the youth hostel dormitory and said: “Right, you lot. Get your coats. We’re going to the pub. I’m allowing you half a pint of beer each. If you behave yourselves, I might allow you another half.”

Though it wasn’t my first time in a pub (as 17 year-olds we did it pretty regularly without our teachers), I now look back on that moment as a significant rite of passage.

We were being taught a number of lessons: one - how to behave sociably in adult company; two - how to drink alcohol responsibly; and three - how to behave like respectful guests towards the regular locals in whose village pub we had just invaded. We had a very enjoyable and convivial evening.

About six months later, we were on another sixth-form outing – this time a day trip to London - visiting the British Museum and the National Gallery. The educational aspects of the day were concluded by mid-afternoon and we were allowed ‘free-time’ to go anywhere we liked as long as we were all back at Euston Station to get on the train to Liverpool at 6.30pm.

Me and my mates wanted to visit Soho – at that time a sleazy red-light area populated mainly by late-night drinking dens and strip clubs. Coming from Liverpool, we had no idea where it was, not realising Trafalgar Square to Soho was easy walking distance, so we asked the male teacher on the trip, Mr Houlihan how to find it. He said he would take us. On the ten minute walk, we passed Piccadilly Circus tube station where he told us how to get back to Euston via the Piccadilly Line to Kings Cross and change onto the Victoria Line, one stop to Euston, explaining how to use the tube map.

He walked us round to Old Compton Street telling us this was the heart of Soho and briefly explaining the history of the area - being associated as it was with French immigrants over hundreds of years and where General De Gaulle headed up the French government in-exile during the Second World War. Of course, all we could think about was getting ourselves inside one of Soho’s strip clubs as soon as he turned his back, which we wasted no time in doing.

We all met back on the train at 6.30, excitedly exchanging stories of where and what we had got up to. Some went to see the Queen at Buckingham Palace, others went to see the Prime Minister in Downing Street and others to the shops on Oxford Street. When my mates and I were asked what we’d got up to, I decided to come clean and tell Mr Houlihan that we'd all been to a Soho strip club.

“Aye…” he said wearily. “I thought you might.”

That was 1973. Values change – but not always for the better in my view.

Nowadays, both of my teachers would have certainly been disciplined and possibly sacked and barred from teaching, denying me and hundreds of others the benefit of their considerable skills, knowledge and wisdom.

Getting back to our hapless teacher from Northumberland; in judging him, ask yourself whether what he did was – in turn - either illegal, unethical or immoral?

You may settle on the view that what he did was professionally inappropriate at the very least – a view I would probably agree with as it happens – but you might also conclude that he risked bringing his profession into disrepute - another valid point.

But was his offence so serious or relevant enough to undermine the public’s confidence in the teaching profession to the extent that it was worthy of sacking and barring him?

By doing so his career has almost certainly been brought to an end, and the public and particularly his students have now lost the benefit of the skills, knowledge and experience that he may have conferred on them and hundreds yet more to come.

Is teaching in a new age puritanism?

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and head teacher in London for over 20 years and then for over a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures and writes on professional values in teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk.

His new book: ‘Becoming a teacher – the legal, ethical and moral implications of entering society’s most fundamental profession’ will be published by Crown House Publishing this summer and can be ordered here.



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