Victims and victimisers

Eddie Ford takes a look at the latest round of hysteria over 'nonces' and 'perverts' in the educational system

Over the last week there has been a flurry of media excitement about registered sex offenders being employed as school teachers. Education secretary Ruth Kelly has admitted that a "small number" of people - "about 10" - whose names appear on the sex offenders register have been cleared by the department for education and skills (DFES) to work in schools in England. Naturally, a furious row erupted about the 'threat' that 'pervert' teachers posed to our children, and so on. As a consequence, Kelly's position now looks a bit precarious.

The headlines have centred around the case of 59-year-old William Gibson, who had found work at Portchester boys' school in Bournemouth after signing on with Step Teachers, a London supply agency. However, Gibson, also a convicted fraudster, was suspended from his post last week after his 1980 conviction for "indecently assaulting" a 15-year-old girl came to light - for which he was fined £50 and dismissed as a teacher. Obviously, the girl was then below the legal age of consent - so it was automatically deemed that Gibson was guilty of a criminal offence, regardless of what actually happened.

In his defence, Gibson said that the girl was very "precocious" and "advanced" for her age - and that they did not have "full" sex until she was 16. Gibson told the BBC Today programme that he "did nothing against the girl's wishes when I had this affair", and that when the case came to court "the prosecution read out a statement to say that she was happy with what had happened". Subsequently, Gibson and the young woman involved were married for 19 years and had three children.

Furthermore, Gibson admitted that the initial relationship should never really have happened, saying he had not been thinking clearly at the time due to the fact that he was going through a difficult and painful divorce - "I was down and out, weak from the break-up of my marriage and I needed someone I could talk to." He had apologised for having had a relationship with his 15-year-old pupil, stating that he cannot see himself "transgressing again" - and added: "I am not a paedophile and I am not a risk to children. It's not as black and white as everyone thinks. I hope everyone will come to the conclusion that I have never abused everyone. It was a genuine relationship and nothing happened against her will."

Whatever the exact details - or particular rights and wrongs - of this specific case, Gibson himself has now been placed in an extremely vulnerable position thanks to the media revelations. As he puts it, "At the moment I don't have a job, I have no income, I've no capital, I have nowhere to live", and worse of all: "I've had to leave my rented accommodation because I was fearful for my life, because I was described by the press as a paedophile. I could have been stabbed or hit with a baseball bat and killed, and my three children, who I love dearly, would not have a father". Yes, it is surely beyond doubt that Gibson risks the very real danger of becoming a victim of vigilante 'paedo-baiters' or 'paedo-hunters' - eager to dispense summary 'justice'.

Later, it emerged that Gibson was one of three registered sex offenders who in recent years have been 'officially' approved for teaching posts by the DFES - thus providing more moralistic grist to the mill for the rightwing and tabloid press. There was physical education teacher Paul Reeve, who in 2003 had been placed on the sex offenders register after being cautioned - not convicted - by the police for accessing on the internet "obscene" images of children.

Then we have 52-year-old science teacher Keith Hudson, who was cleared to work in girls', but not boys' schools, after being convicted for possessing "indecent images" of boys. When Hudson challenged this employment restriction, the Care Standards Tribunal - after hearing extensive medical evidence - adjudicated that although Hudson's feelings towards young boys were "homosexual, paedophiliac and inappropriate", he had exhibited "no interest in girls" and thus there would be no total ban on Hudson working in schools.

Clearly, the main shock for many was to discover that being on the sex offenders register did not act as an absolute block to teaching - that is, as we have just see with Hudson, under certain circumstances 'named' individuals were still allowed to work in the teaching profession, albeit under particular limitations: like with older pupils only, or not with boys, etc.

Predictably, there has been a wave of opportunist attacks upon Ruth Kelly - yes, 'something has to be done'. Even Gordon Brown felt the urge to step in and have his say on the matter, telling GMTV: "This has got to be sorted out because I understand, as a parent, the worries of parents"- and has strongly indicated that he favours removing the powers that ministers currently have to decide whether a 'paedophile' teacher or professional should be permanently barred from the classroom or not.

Now, in order to iron out "inconsistencies" and "anomalies", Kelly is now carrying out a major "review" - both into the actual number of registered sex offenders currently teaching in schools in England and Wales (Scotland is treated differently) and how the overall system can be "improved" and "reformed". As part of this process, Kelly has declared that her primary aim is to achieve the "closest possible alignment" between the sex offenders register and 'list 99'.

The sex offenders register was set up in 1997. It is run by the police, and features the details of anyone convicted of or cautioned for a sexual offence. List 99 is the education department's very own official blacklist of people banned from working with children, covering not only sexual offences, but also crimes of dishonesty and violence. Anybody working with children has to undergo an enhanced Criminal Records Bureau check, which will flag up a person's presence on the sex offenders register. However, as we have seen with Gibson, Reeve and Hudson, teachers who are not on list 99 can be cleared to work in a school - and may indeed have even started doing so - pending the CRB check, which can take weeks or months.

In tandem with Kelly's "review", health secretary Patricia Hewitt has said that legislation - based on the 31 recommendations of the Bichard Inquiry (published on March 15 2005) into the 2002 Soham murders - would be brought forward, and would cover health professionals as well as teachers.

All in all then, the new laws and legislation could see the creation of a centralised list of eight million people working with children - giving employers in England and Wales instant, online information on barred individuals, including private tutors and nannies. This new, revamped, 'toughened up' list will be continuously updated, at least in theory, and it may well provide the legislative blueprint for the Safeguarding Children and Vulnerable Adults Bill promised in the next queen's speech.

Communists can only have grave misgivings about the creation of such a 'super-list 99' - a blueprint for bureaucratic abuse, with the possibility of individuals being unjustly listed and thus becoming the victim of an undeclared witch-hunt. There is enough secrecy - and a corresponding lack of transparency - with the current list 99 as it already is. DFES officials are noted for their reticence when it comes to detailed discussions about how exactly the list is compiled, supervised and regulated (not to mention the even more secretive 'list 98', a register of 'suspicious' teachers kept by the local authorities).

The current row over 'nonces' and 'perverts' in the educational system instantly brings to mind the rather unfortunate story of Amy Gehring. In 2002 the 26-year-old biology teacher from the deepest, most god-fearing region of Canada was sent by a private teaching agency, Timeplan, to a 'rough' and no doubt 'bog-standard' secondary school in Surrey. As this was her first proper teaching assignment, you could say that the hapless Gehring had been thrown to the wolves.

Obviously suffering from some form of emotional or nervous breakdown - at the very least you can say she had temporarily lost her moorings - Gehring embarked on an unwise series of (nearly always alcohol-fuelled) sexual dalliances with some of her male pupils who were aged between 14 and 15. She was absurdly accused of "seducing" and "indecently assaulting" two teenager brothers and there was daft talk from the tabloid media and elsewhere about how the 'predatory' Gehring was a threat to "boys", "a risk to children", etc.

All nonsense, of course. But despite that she was placed on list 99 - a totally grotesque, if not inhuman, way to deal with her. True - perhaps like William Gibson - you can broadly classify her actions as 'inappropriate' or 'unprofessional' for a teacher, as she readily admitted in court. Yet it was obvious that Gehring needed help, not punishment and public humiliation.

If Ruth Kelly and Patricia Hewitt get their "reforms" through, and we end up with a far more centralised and integrated list/register, how many more Amy Gehrings will there be - lives wrecked almost beyond repair?

Self-evidently, the cases - or 'scandals' - of Gibson, Gehring, etc have furthermore highlighted the UK's backward, conflicting and irrational laws on 'adult-child' sex. In particular, we come up again against the mistaken assumption that a girl, or young woman, who has sex with an older man will be scarred for life - even if that liaison is fully consensual. Nor, of course, is it true that a teenage male who has sex with an older woman will automatically be traumatised.

We need to make a clean sweep of all these repressive laws - first of all starting with the abolition of the 'age of consent' legislation. Young adults must be able to enter freely into sexual relationships whenever they feel ready. Obviously, the actual age will depend on each individual's emotional and psycho-sexual development and 'intelligence' - a highly complex and deeply variegated process.

Thus, older people of either sex who engage with them in a genuinely consenting relationship must not be criminalised. The present age-of-consent laws should be replaced with legislation based on the straightforward criteria of effective consent - not only must it have taken place, but it has to be meaningful, in that both parties have the maturity to understand the implications of sexual activity engaged in, on an individual basis.

As for actual, real paedophilia - which usually involves physical sexual relations with pre-pubescent children who are therefore not capable of granting effective consent - communists think that this serious disorder or dysfunction should not be treated as an issue of criminality per se, but more as a threat to public health, and in particular mental health. Additionally, this dysfunction - like all others - has different levels of seriousness, and hence the utmost importance of individual assessment, so each person can be treated in the most effective and humane way possible. So, for instance, and at the most extreme and rare end of the disorder, there are those whose sexuality or compulsion leads them to actively seek sex with children - as with any other kind of mentally ill person who is a danger to themselves and others, compulsory treatment in hospitals or some sort of medical institution should be used if and when necessary. For the rest, the overwhelming majority, less draconian forms of treatment will be necessary.

In other words, communists stress rehabilitation, not punishment - we do not want to destroy people's lives with prison, the sex offenders register, list 99, 'naming and shaming', etc. Creating bigger and more intrusive 'blacklists', and jailing more and more people who suffer from various psycho-sexual dysfunctions or afflictions, will just create and reproduce - alongside the universities of crime that are prisons today - specialised colleges or academies of 'paedophilia' in 'rule 43' segregated wings of the same prisons.

Hardly the most rational way to deal with a damaging social problem.