Don't sack Chris Woodhead over sex, say sixth formers
Nearly two thirds of sixth formers questioned during a recent survey thought that chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead should not be sacked, over allegations that he had a relationship with a sixth-form pupil when he was a teacher, more than 20 years ago. Ten percent thought Woodhead should go, and 27 percent were not sure.
Most of the 100 sixth formers surveyed, from schools and colleges across England, felt that the allegations concerned events that happened too long ago to be important today, and that Woodhead should be judged on his professional life alone.
Feelings were more mixed, however, over whether sexual relationships between teachers and students should be allowed today. Thirty-nine percent approved of the proposed law to make these relationships illegal, while 25 percent opposed it. Despite this, 44 percent thought that teachers should not be sacked for having such a sexual relationship; 21 percent thought they should be.
The sixth formers were almost evenly split on whether sexual relationships between teachers and sixth formers were ever acceptable: 39 percent said they were, and 37 percent said they were not.
Clearly, there is considerable confusion about the status of 16-18 year olds in full-time education. Three quarters of the sixth formers agreed that 16 was the appropriate age of consent for heterosexual sex, and an overwhelming 90 percent could see no problem with 16-18 year olds having sexual relationships with older people. But teachers are seen in a different light.
On the one hand, these sixth formers said that sexual relationships between teachers and students could be harmless, or even positive, and that students were equally responsible for these relationships. Sacking teachers was seen by many as too harsh a punishment, and unfair. On the other hand, they raised concerns about predatory teachers, an imbalance of power, and teachers' professional role. Those who approved of a law preventing sexual relationships between teachers and sixth formers saw it as a way to protect students from being 'taken advantage of', and clarifying what a teacher's role should be. Those who opposed the idea felt that students aged 16 and over were able to take responsibility for their own relationships.
All of this indicates the moral minefield which politicians step into when they start creating laws to regulate human relationships - particularly when these relationships affect young adults, who are confused about their sexual relationships at the best of times.
Sixty percent of the sixth formers surveyed were aware of the proposed law to make it illegal for teachers to have sexual relationships with students between the ages of 16 and 18.
39 percent AGREED with this law:
'Teachers are in loco parentis and should be guardians not lovers.'
'Sexual relations could lead to predatory teachers.'
'These relationships may affect results, due to favouritism and the emotional traumas onset by others when they find out.'
25 percent DISAGREED with the law:
'Love should be non-discriminatory. Maturity levels differ amongst individuals, and so should positive emotions be discouraged?'
'Sixteen to 18-year olds are adults and able to make up their own minds about whether it is sensible to have sexual relationships with teachers.'
'Students at this age have the responsibility to choose their own partners, even if they are extremely older and in authority.'
36 percent were not sure:
'Some people need this law but the ones that don't will suffer.'
'Some young teachers are pretty cool. It's just like meeting them in a pub but it's not, it's school.'
'If something is going to happen it will
happen regardless of any law.'
39 percent thought that a sexual relationship between a 16-17 year old and their teacher COULD BE acceptable:
'16-17 year olds should be responsible enough not to be abused by their teachers.'
'A person's occupation is irrelevant when choosing a sexual partner.'
'As long as both are happy with the relationship there is no problem.'
'It is not for the law to make moral judgements on the motivations of
37 percent thought these relationships WERE NEVER acceptable:
'The teacher is taking advantage of the student when they should know better. This does not mean that teachers should be unfriendly or unsociable.'
'I'm sure they can easily find somebody their own age!'
'It would end up messing up the student's and teacher's lives.'
'24 percent were not sure:
'It depends on whether the teacher is abusing his or her power: if it's a joint decision or if one person feels threatened into the relationship.'
44 percent thought that a teacher SHOULD NOT be sacked for having a sexual relationship with a student aged 16-17:
'It's hard to rule love. Many other people have sexual relationships which may not seem moral or ethical, but they can't help it.'
'It might encourage students to study if they are attracted to the teacher.'
'People make mistakes. It is as much the student's fault.'
'The fact that a teacher may have had a sexual relationship with a 16-17 year old doesn't necessarily make them a bad teacher.'
21 percent thought they SHOULD be sacked:
'They shouldn't have had such a lapse in professional judgement.'
'Teachers should look on students at that age as still minors in a way, and should know better.'
'It is a breach of contract - a teacher is there to teach not to take advantage or fall in love with a student.'
'If they have done it once they could do it again.'
35 percent were not sure.
63 percent thought that Chris Woodhead SHOULD NOT be sacked because of allegations that he might have had a relationship with a sixth-form pupil over 20 years ago:
'If she was consenting and legally old enough, what crime has been committed?'
'The law wasn't in place then so it shouldn't be applied.'
'He should not be sacked for something from his past, before he became important or a role model.'
'He should only be judged on his professional performance.'
'It is ridiculous to sack someone for something that happened so long ago. But maybe he should be sacked for the way in which he does his job.'
'He should not be sacked for this, but for destroying the comprehensive education system, for closing schools, for imposing OFSTED special measures, for demoralising teachers and students.'
Only 10 percent thought that he SHOULD be sacked:
'Because he lied about the relationship afterwards. He is no longer trustworthy.'
'If a similar situation should arise with another teacher it could cloud his judgement.'
'He should not be allowed to work in a profession where he abused his rights.'
'He is chief inspector of schools which is a respectable position in society.'
27 percent were not sure.
90 percent thought that 16 and 17-year olds SHOULD be allowed to have relationships with older people who were not their teachers:
'It is a human liberty for people to choose their partners, regardless of age.'
'Why not? Otherwise all relationships would be between people of the same age - boring!'
'You couldn't regulate if you tried.'
'If older people are not in a position of trust, they won't take advantage.'
'As long as it does not hurt anyone else.'
Nine percent were not sure.
Only one percent thought that such relationships were wrong.
75 percent thought that the age of consent for heterosexual sex was RIGHT at 16:
'At 16, you are mature and should be free to choose with no peer pressure.'
'It protects younger girls.'
11 percent thought 16 was TOO LOW:
'It is more of a decision to have sex than to drink and buy alcohol at 18.'
'At that age nobody knows what they want, and older men and women can take advantage of it.'
'The age of consent isn't taken seriously.'
Seven percent thought 16 was TOO HIGH.
Eight percent were not sure.
56 percent thought that the age of consent for homosexual sex was TOO HIGH at 18:
'Sex is sex whether it is male-female or male-male.'
'It should be brought down to 16 to show acceptance of everyone's sexual preferences.'
'If you are old enough to decide your sexuality then you are old enough to have sex.'
24 percent thought that 18 was the RIGHT age:
'At 18 you are officially an adult so parents are no longer in control of your life. Before then, if you are gay or lesbian you should respect your parents' view of sexuality.'
'For some it's a hard decision. They may not understand fully and should wait longer.'
14 percent thought that 18 was TOO LOW.
Six percent were not sure:
'I am not homosexual; therefore I do not feel that I can comment.'
The 100 sixth formers were aged 16, 17 and 18, 60 percent female and 40 percent male. Surveys conducted in London, Bristol, Nottingham and the South East by Danny, Julia, Timandra, Josie and Jess.
Reproduced from LM issue 121, June 1999