The following is an account of the damaging effect the recently abandoned policy of ‘disqualification by association’ had on one of our members who had served in the teaching profession for 20 years
On 2nd July 2018, the Department for Education (DfE) quietly published its consultation response to the call to scrap its controversial ‘disqualification by association’ regulations and issued new draft guidance that would come into force on 31st August 2018, dumping this draconian policy.
Unlike the furore surrounding my post as an acting Headteacher married to a convicted sex offender back in January 2015, the news of the scrapping almost silently slipped through without any fanfare.
In fact, I only found out about it by chance a few days after the announcement, when a friend who works in a nursery setting mentioned it.
Campaigners had been calling for it to be scrapped for nearly four years since October 2014 when the DfE first issued the supplementary guidance to Keeping Children Safe in Education (2014). This guidance stated that school staff were disqualified from working in a school, when they lived or worked in the same household as someone who is barred from working with children or young people, even if they would not otherwise be disqualified themselves.
The requirements originated from the Childcare Act 2006 and the Childcare (Disqualification) Regulations 2009 and were never relevant to schools and other registered settings that were already required to have stringent safeguarding practices in place. However, the supplementary guidance of 2014 made it clear that they now also applied to primary schools.
At first there was great confusion over the regulations, with local education authorities and other providers interpreting the complicated rules in different ways. It took some time to filter through to schools and it was only in January 2015 that directions on its implementation started to reach school leaders and staff.
Meanwhile, my husband’s trial started in November 2014. The days leading up to it are rather hazy, but as an experienced school leader I liked to keep up-to-date with policies and I remember reading something about the new guidance, however, focussed on his acquittal, I didn’t allow it to take up many of my thoughts and I calmly put it away to one side.
In December 2014, the worst happened. In nonsensical and perverse verdicts, he was convicted (wrongly) of two counts of abuse of trust, despite being acquitted of six, and our world as we knew it fell apart.
He was due to be sentenced in January and during the Christmas holidays I had to prepare not only for the acting Headship I was about to embark upon, but the prospect that my husband may not be coming home for some time.
I knew that whatever happened, I still needed to support my family, so with my husband’s backing it was decided that I would focus on my work and career and give this opportunity my best shot, not allowing our horrific news to get in the way of a position that I had been working towards for over twenty years, in a profession that was not only my work, but my vocation.
This wasn’t to be. After only days in the post, the disqualification by association (DbA) directives meant that I couldn’t go to school and I had to wait at home for the sentencing. I was actually told by someone in a very senior role that I would be better off if my husband was ‘put away’ as then I wouldn’t be living in the same household as him, so I would be able to continue in my post without facing this issue. Whether or not our child was without a father, or I was without my husband and the fact that an innocent man had been locked up was irrelevant.
You just couldn’t make up the timing of this policy and added to all the other injustices we had suffered since the allegations had first been made in 2013, it made it feel like our lives were literally being destroyed by the state.
The sentencing came and went and after the media storm had died down, we needed to quickly consider what I was going to do about my work now that my husband had been given a suspended sentence.
We discussed living arrangements and DbA with the police officer he had been allocated, to ensure he complied with his notification requirements.
She agreed that it was important that I returned to work as soon as possible and suggested that my husband should stay with a relative, at least in the short term, to allow me to do this while we considered other options such as an Ofsted ‘waiver’ that would allow me to teach whilst living under the same roof. So, this was arranged, and I was able to return to work, no longer disqualified.
With my personal living arrangements unknown to the press, they had by now got wind of DbA and started to stake out my school and interview parents outside the gates, asking them if they thought I should be allowed to continue in my post whilst I was living with my husband, whipping up what became another media frenzy, now against me.
I became a kind of ‘poster girl’ for DbA as the first high profile case and after the emotive headline, ‘Head must Go’ in the local press, my story soon spread to the nationals.
It was now my name that was all over the press and one day when I was driving home from school, as my car radio retuned, I heard my name mentioned as listeners were urged to phone in the BBC radio station to debate whether I should be allowed to stay in my post.
The following morning, I awoke to the press on my doorstep. Despite asking them to leave, they refused, and one photographer even stood with his long lens pointing up at my child’s bedroom window. This was now a witch hunt. They were desperate to get a photo of the Headteacher who was now deemed ‘guilty by association’.
Shaken by this incident and feeling vulnerable, we needed to rethink our living arrangements. I didn’t feel safe living alone with our child. So, after much soul searching, I had no choice but to render myself disqualified by association and apply for an Ofsted waiver so that my husband could return to the family home.
Meanwhile, the press speculation about my position continued and as I was not able to speak about my situation, they simply made things up to suit their spin including falsely claiming that I was sacked for taking my husband to school, neither of which were true.
Ofsted, who were responsible for issuing waivers, appeared ill-prepared for the hundreds of school staff who found themselves suspended and applying to have their disqualification by association ‘waived’. Due to the confusing guidelines, many staff made unnecessary applications and irrelevant convictions of family members, often long spent, were declared to employers causing embarrassment and distress and in many cases the end of long careers.
I cannot speak for others, but my personal experience of the waiver process was distressing, degrading and discriminatory.
Summonsed to Ofsted HQ in London, on February 12th, 2015, less than a month after the trauma of my husband’s sentencing, was an horrific experience.
Taken to the tiniest of rooms, with a supporter and my union rep, I was literally put under a spotlight and questioned for several hours. The questioning went around and around in circles. Different scenarios were put to me and I was asked what decisions I would make as a school leader, in those circumstances. Then I would be asked the same question again just in a different way. It felt like I was on trial. It was reminiscent of the old war films where prisoners of war were ‘made to talk’. So close to the real trial, only weeks before, this added to my distress. I wept through most of it. But through my tears I remained articulate and defiant. I had done nothing wrong and I did not deserve to be treated in this manner. It was truly appalling. I am a strong woman who is not going to be influenced by anyone and I made this quite clear to my interrogators.
During a short break, my union rep, who hadn’t been allowed to speak during the interview or rather, the drilling, reassuringly said how well I had answered and that he couldn’t see how they could possibly refuse to issue me with a waiver. Not only was I an experienced school leader, but I was also an experienced designated safeguarding officer. I knew my stuff and took the role very seriously.
Hours later, I was finally released and sent home to await the decision which I was told would be within a few days.
The deadline came and went. After two years of the anxiety of my husband’s bail, trial and wrongful convictions, it was now me awaiting a life changing decision.
What was I going to do if they refused to offer me a waiver and my career was over? It was unbearably painful to even contemplate that possibility after everything else we had endured.
After over a week of waiting on tenterhooks, I was then told they couldn’t make their decision without further questioning. I would now have to be questioned over the telephone by a more senior member of the department.
This I duly did, just desperate for them to hurry up and make up their minds, but obviously without my union rep present as it was a telephone interview this time. By now I was getting angry. How many times did I have to answer the same questions? For that is all that I was asked – the same things over and over again – the possible scenarios becoming more and more ridiculous.
Looking back, I should have refused as this was surely taking it too far. Were they putting all waiver applicants through this amount of scrutiny or just those splashed across the national press? The whole process felt against my human rights.
The process was meant to be swift as people’s jobs were hanging in the balance, however, it was evident that the DfE were simply not prepared for the numbers of individuals affected by their policy with the press reporting that hundreds of staff had been left in limbo, frequently suspended from their roles whilst their applications hit a backlog.
Later, a Subject Access Request (SAR) to Ofsted, revealed that whilst there were not legitimate reasons to refuse issuing me with a waiver, the press reaction was a serious consideration. So, their decision appeared to come down to weighing up any press criticism they might receive against refusing an innocent person the right to continue to teach.
Meanwhile, due to the confusion over the regulations, new DfE guidance was issued later in February 2015, clarifying some of the offences and roles that rendered someone disqualified by association. It also made it clear that it was not necessary to suspend staff whilst a waiver was being sought and where at all possible the employee should be redeployed in the interim. This guidance came too late for hundreds of us who had already submitted their applications in the early days of this unjust policy. However, even after the issuing of this guidance, there was still ambiguity and inconsistency in the way it was implemented across local authorities, schools and academies and many still found themselves wrongly suspended or even losing their jobs as a result of the convictions (whether wrongful ones or not) of members of their households.
By the time my waiver was finally issued at the end of the month the damage had been done.
Having been unable to work for a number of weeks, been the subject of media debates and double page spreads about my disqualification, yet unable to speak out as legal matters concerning my husband’s case were ongoing, my position as an acting Headteacher became untenable. I had no choice but to leave my school after over 12 years as a senior member of staff, over 16 years working for the same local authority and over 20 years in the profession as a whole.
There are no words to describe my utter devastation and hurt.
An exemplary career of over twenty years destroyed by Government legislation and through nothing I had done. While my husband’s exemplary 20 year career, wrecked by false allegations and a broken justice system. If his miscarriages of justice hadn’t destroyed us, disqualification by association now certainly had. It put the final nail in the coffin.
It’s hard to pick yourself up again after that sort of a blow.
Both suffering from PTSD, our priority was getting through each day and protecting our child as much as possible and dedicating our time to them.
But we needed to earn a living and struggling to know what else I could do and constantly feeling drawn back to my vocation, I attempted to turn back to teaching through the agency route. Armed with exemplary references and updating my CV with fresh training and voluntary work experience, I tentatively put myself out there again.
It took all my resilience and determination to do this, but it felt like I had nothing to lose. My CV was enthusiastically welcomed by agencies and although I only wanted to return doing some temporary posts, they took one look at my leadership experience and quickly wanted to put me forward for unfulfilled Headteacher vacancies.
Holding the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH), with a wealth of leadership experience, and described as an “excellent addition to any organisation” respected for my “wide reading, in depth knowledge, determination, diligence and resilience”, it was clear I had a great deal to offer.
However, there was this little thing called ‘compliance’ and rightly I needed to go through the safeguarding checks before I could be sent out to schools. But despite having a clear enhanced DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) Certificate and my waiver in place, the waiver alone was enough to ensure that agencies were wary of employing me for fear of any backlash.
As a holder of a waiver, I was obliged to declare it and present it to any prospective employers. However, despite attempting to work with three well known teaching agencies, it was evident that they had never seen a waiver before. The minute I presented this piece of paper, the face on the interviewer would change and lots of awkward mutterings of “I’ll need to check” ensued.
By now, disqualification by association had been in force for nearly two years, yet major providers of jobs for teachers had never encountered one before! From this, I could only conclude that the majority of teachers in this position, including school leaders like me, had quietly withdrawn from the profession for fear of facing this prejudice.
Again, much like my original waiver, I faced questioning about my personal living arrangements and had to seek advice from both my union and Ofsted about the legality of this interrogation. It was confirmed that this was not acceptable, and the waiver was all that was required, but again the irreparable damage that this little piece of paper had caused had been done.
I finally took on some work with one agency, but it was clear that they were only sending me to schools where no one else wanted to go and who were literally desperate to fill their posts.
But I didn’t want to be beaten and I started to apply for suitable permanent leadership positions. Again, my CV was met enthusiastically, and several schools chased me to apply, but once shortlisting took place, further ‘googling’ of my previous role and career break threw up the numerous stories that appeared as a result of my disqualification by association and time and time again I was not offered an interview, despite being told only days before, that there had been few applicants for the post and I was a strong candidate for the position.
Again, for my own closure I made SARs that revealed that Google searches on my name had taken place prior to shortlisting and inconsistent reasons for my application not going any further were found amongst the paperwork. It was clear that they were trying to cover up their discriminatory behaviour in simply not wanting to employ the high profile wife of a convicted sex offender and it was nothing to do with my ability to do the job or not. I was guilty by association.
Since the introduction of DbA, campaigners such as Unlock, the charity for people with convictions and the NAHT, the professional association for school leaders, had been calling for it to be scrapped.
After nearly two years, in 2016, a Government consultation on amending the disqualification arrangements in schools and non-domestic registered settings finally took place. The legislation had never been appropriate for schools and other settings away from the home. They had been intended to apply to people like childminders who looked after children in their own homes, as they could obviously be in close contact with other household members.
As a both a parent and a teacher, this made perfect sense to me. I had always taken the safeguarding of children very seriously and understood the need to implement measures to keep them safe. What I struggled with, is understanding how DbA for school staff did this.
Despite the original Government consultation response date given as ‘Summer 2016’ and later given as early 2017, it has taken a further two years until the summer of 2018 for them to admit that, “It is clear from the consultation responses that there is a significant consensus that the current arrangements are widely considered unfair and that they represent a disproportionate response to the risk to children” and to finally put into place the scrapping of DbA.
I wasn’t expecting my reaction to the news. After this policy had caused so many years of unnecessary injustice and distress to people like me, the change was long overdue. Yet I felt cheated and devastated. Devastated that this turnaround had come nearly four years too late for me. Devastated that I was put through the unnecessary hell of being treated guilty by association and driven out of my vocation. Devastated that it was simply too late. I sobbed. Not just a few tears. But uncontrollable sobbing. Then tears led to bitterness and anger. Anger that it had taken so long to scrap this unfair, unjust and disproportionate regulation. Anger that the news had received barely any press coverage other than from the organisations who had been instrumental in ensuring that DbA came to an end. Anger that my career had been destroyed by a Government policy that should never have happened. This news destroyed me almost as much as the policy itself.
According to the new draft regulations, from 31st August 2018 disqualification by association “does not apply to staff in a relevant school setting; disqualification by association is only relevant where childcare is provided in domestic settings (e.g. where childminding is provided in the home) or under registration on domestic premises. Accordingly, schools should not ask their staff questions about cautions or convictions of someone living or working in their household. Schools should review their staffing policies and safer recruitment procedures and make changes accordingly.”
It remains to be seen how this will work in practice with staff to be encouraged “to discuss matters outside of work, which may have implications for the safeguarding of children in the workplace.” Will this result in the continued discrimination of school staff associated with those convicted of certain offences? It would certainly not be in the spirit of this draft statutory guidance to do so, but with the google effect, it is likely that until such times as discrimination by association becomes unlawful that school staff will still find themselves subject to these issues.
What I do know is that disqualification by association made me fair game for the gutter press and drove me out of my post. Would I have still been in the press if this policy hadn’t been introduced? Probably. But I firmly believe that it was the whole disqualification and waiver process that made me such a target for the adverse publicity and allowed me to be driven out of my post.
Will I ever return? It’s unlikely. Never say never but this change comes too late for me and others who suffered the fate of guilt by association.
Have the DfE or Ofsted had the courtesy to write to inform me, as a waiver holder, that it will no longer be required from the start of the new academic year? Of course not. Will they ever? I doubt it. I am just more collateral damage of the false allegations industry.
See also ‘End of guilt by association?’