Announced Decision of a Professional Conduct Committee

Teacher:                               Mr Adam Walker

Date of Announcement:   25 May 2010                        

Committee’s Decision and Reasons

The Committee announced its decision and reasons as follows:
We have now carefully considered the case before us and have reached a decision.
We confirm that we have read all the documents provided in the bundle in advance of the hearing.
This case involves an allegation of unacceptable professional conduct relating to Mr Walker’s computer usage between 7 February 2007 and 3 March 2007.  It is alleged that he made personal use of a school laptop computer during lessons and that, whilst using the laptop, he accessed the internet and contributed to on-line discussions, specifically a forum at Teesside On-line, in which he demonstrated views suggestive of racial and religious intolerance. 
The Committee has heard oral evidence and received a large bundle of evidence including detailed logs of the postings made to the forum by an individual called “Corporal Fox”.
Findings of fact
Our findings of fact are as follows:
We have found the following particular of the allegation against Mr Walker proven.
That whilst employed as a Technology Teacher at Houghton Kepier Sports College, Tyne and Wear between 1 September 2001 and 3 April 2007, he between 7 February 2007 and 3 March 2007:
1.  made personal use of a school laptop during lessons.
Our reasons are as follows:
In relation to particular 1 Mr Walker has consistently and clearly admitted that he made personal use of school laptop during lessons.  This was something he admitted to the GTC in an email dated 29 January 2008 (pink pages 1-2). 
 At paragraph 7 of his statement dated 30 March 2010 (pink pages 22-25) which was read to us during the hearing he states “I do not deny that I used my computer to access the internet, many teachers do for many different reasons.  It is such a part of modern day life.  With the value of hindsight, I now regret making any personal use of the internet during lesson time.  I would like to apologise for it.”
In addition to his admission, the Committee has received extensive documentary evidence of reports prepared by Mr Bateson, the school’s ICT Strategy Manager (these are at white pages 33-49, 206-247 and 351-790).  The fact that these reports and audits show significant personal internet usage during school hours has not been disputed (although the Committee notes the precise extent of the active usage is disputed).
The Committee can be quite satisfied that particular 1 is proved.   
We have found the following particular of the allegation against Mr Walker not proven:
That whilst employed as a Technology Teacher at Houghton Kepier Sports College, Tyne and Wear between 1 September 2001 and 3 April 2007, he between 7 February 2007 and 3 March 2007:
2.  whilst using the laptop, accessed the internet and contributed to on-line discussions in which he demonstrated views suggestive of racial and religious intolerance.
In relation to particular 2 the Committee has noted that Mr Walker has made a partial admission.  He has indicated, again in his email dated 29 January 2008, in his more recent statement (dated 30 March 2010) and via his representative at the hearing, that whilst using the laptop he accessed the internet and contributed to on-line discussions. 
The Presenting Officer of the GTC has made it clear that the on-line discussions which are central to this particular are those made to the Teesside On-line website including, in particular, to a forum whose topic was “BNP popularity”.
The Committee has carefully reviewed the postings to that forum which have been provided in the bundle for the hearing (white pages 50-64 which are postings from an author calling himself “Corporal Fox” and white pages 65-146 which includes posting from Corporal Fox but also others who have posted to that forum).
The case before us has been presented by both parties on the basis that it is now accepted the Mr Walker was the person posting under the name of “Corporal Fox”.  The Presenting Officer stated that Mr Walker now accepts that he was Corporal Fox and no issue was taken by his representative with this statement. 
Mr Harrington, on behalf of Mr Walker, has further implicitly accepted this is the case.  He has addressed the Committee in relation to Corporal Fox’s posting and referring to what Mr Walker may or may not have intended by the statements he made. 
Mr Walker has chosen not to give oral evidence at the hearing.  Whilst his statement makes no direct reference to Corporal Fox he refers to the postings as his postings. 
We are further assisted on this point by the technical evidence which has explained how a connection can be made between Corporal Fox and the IP address of Mr Walker.  The Committee notes that Mr Walker objects to the way that connection may have been discovered but it does appear to be accepted that via a combination of the Teesside On-line Administrator and the local authority such a link could be established.
In approaching the task of deciding whether particular 2 could be found proved the Committee has given careful thought to the meaning of the words used in the drafting of the particular.  The contributions were alleged to have demonstrated views “suggestive” of racial and religious intolerance.
In the Committee’s view “suggestive” should be interpreted as “indicative” that Mr Walker held views that were religiously or racially intolerant. The Committee also considered the word “suggestive” might mean “susceptible to be interpreted as..”. 
 The particular, as drafted, did not require the Committee to determine that Mr Walker clearly held any particular views nor indeed that he demonstrated holding such views.  Mr Harrington’s submission was that this was a low threshold and the Committee is inclined to agree that “suggestive” might be considerably easier to prove than a stronger form of words.
We have also looked at the terms “racial” and “religious”. 
In relation to religion the Presenting Officer took us to a number of postings which made reference to Islam or to Jews.  We accept these terms both refer to religious belief.  However, in the postings that were specifically highlighted (set out below), and indeed in other religious references we have found, we are not satisfied that they are “suggestive of religious intolerance”. 
The Committee has not received any evidence about the truth or otherwise of statements which the Presenting Officer highlighted from the postings, such as “In 1926, the year the Queen was born, there were 4 mosques in Britain. 
There are now more than 1,100” “Around 25 percent of all those who fought in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War were Jewish” or “In 1933 about 7 million Ukrainians were deliberately starved to death in the “breadbasket of Europe”.  Lazar Kaganovich, the chief architect of the forced famine which brought about the Ukrainian genocide, was Jewish.”. 
These appear to be statements which Mr Walker took from elsewhere and posted on the Teesside On-line website.  However without additional comment we are not satisfied that these bald statements, whether true or false, are suggestive of religious intolerance.  
Although these statements were posted as purported “facts” in a forum which was intended to discuss the popularity of the BNP they were not specifically commented upon by “Corporal Fox”.  No derogatory comments were made and, in the absence of amplification, it is not clear what conclusion any reader might have reached about the views of the person posting these statements.
Turning to the word “racial” which is also used in particular 2.  The Committee does not accept that references to “immigrants” are of themselves suggestive of any particular views on race.  The Committee accepts that immigrants to this country come from all over the world, and indeed a high proportion of them currently come from EU countries.  A negative comment about immigration to the UK of itself need not be indicative of racist views or racial intolerance since the race of immigrants is extremely varied.   
The Committee takes a different view about references to “the third world” which it considers many people would, in the context it is used in these postings, view as a reference to people who would predominantly be members of visible ethic minority groups.   Although Mr Harrington submitted that the term was technically an economic one we have looked at the postings that contain this reference and do not accept it was being used by Mr Walker in this sense. 
The Committee has been particularly troubled by the posting which can be found in context at white page 112, made at 12.51pm on Thursday 15 February 2007 in which Mr Walker (posting as Corporal Fox) wrote:
“Our country is fast becoming a dumping ground for the filth of the third world.  And all we do is sleep.  If we do not wake up and get a grip soon then the country we have fought and died for and cherish so much will itself be turned into a third world cess pit.  Indeed, in some parts of our country it already has!!!! We have enough on our plates sorting out our own home grown scumbags and scroungers without allowing filth from other countries to come here and destroy us…”
Later that same day at 3.11pm Mr Walker posted on the forum topic Iraq War the following (which appears at white page 53):
“Pull all of our soldiers out of all foreign conflicts and get them back here to patrol our own borders.  This will prevent our country from being over-run by third world savages, the likes of which we have seen murdering our people and destroying our way of life.”
The Committee’s view is that such postings contain offensive terms and demonstrate views or an attitude that might be considered racist.  The Committee notes that some postings appear to have been cut and pasted from other documents or websites, but the postings above appear to convey Mr Walker’s views in no uncertain terms.
The Committee has noted that in his own statement Mr Walker has said that he expressed “intemperate views which lacked complexity and balance” and that he “should have taken more time to think about the possible offence my words might have caused” and that he now reflects that he could have expressed himself more carefully and positively.  The Committee agrees that these were intemperate contributions to the on-line forum.
However for the GTC to prove its case in relation to particular 2 the Committee has to be satisfied that contributions made by Mr Walker demonstrated views suggestive of racial intolerance.  Although “suggestive” may be a relatively low threshold, “intolerance” is a significant word which the Committee has considered very carefully. 
The Legal Adviser provided the Committee with a definition of intolerance from the Oxford English Dictionary which suggests it might mean “not tolerating opinions or practices different from one’s own, denying or refusing to others the right to dissent.”  The Committee has found this definition a helpful way to consider the ordinary meaning to be given to this word.
The Committee has re-read the entirety of the postings which have been provided in the Committee bundle and notes that these were posting to a forum in which intemperate and strong views were exchanged.   We have also noted that Mr Walker has posted a wide range of views on various different topics.
It appears that Mr Walker may have started the discussion or thread on BNP popularity, and it is clear that in his postings Mr Walker was seeking to stir up debate, but we are not satisfied, to the requisite standard, that his contributions were suggestive of racial intolerance. 
On 12 February at 10:36 (white page 89) he said “I am glad I started this thread …It has created some debate…..”  and later that date at 12:55 (white page 91) he wrote “not all asylum seekers should be kicked out” and “There is nothing wrong with having someone here to contribute to our economy…”.  On 13 February at 3:04 (white page 101) he indicated people were welcome to contribute to the “Your say” section of the BNP website where he said readers would find letters from people who both agree and disagree with BNP policies. 
Although not always the case, the Committee also accepts that in quite a few of the postings Mr Walker focuses his comments on immigrants who have committed crimes.   It also appears that the focus of some of the contributions was criticism of the way in which the UK was being governed.
The Committee’s view is that, to be suggestive of intolerance, the postings would need to deny or refuse to others the right to dissent.  That is not evidenced by reading all the entries in which Mr Walker was not the only contributor who expressed aggressive views using harsh and sometimes intemperate language on both sides of the argument.  We do not find that the postings themselves were suggestive of intolerance and there is no other evidence relied upon by the Council in relation to this particular.
In considering its role and adopting an investigative approach, the Committee has also looked at the wider context when testing its views about intolerance.  The Committee notes that there is no evidence from the school, or relied upon by the GTC, to suggest that in his professional life, Mr Walker has acted in a way that demonstrated racial or religious intolerance.
For the above reasons we have found particular 2 not proved.
Findings as to Unacceptable Professional Conduct
Having found the facts of Particular 1 proved, we further find that Mr Walker’s actions, making personal use of a school laptop during lessons between 7 February and 2 March 2007, amount to unacceptable professional conduct.
The Committee notes that Mr Walker accepts that this conduct was unprofessional and that learners and parents at the school had the right to expect his undivided attention during his contracted school hours.  The evidence shows that this was not an isolated incident of internet usage.
The school’s audit shows that Mr Walker repeatedly accessed the internet during the school day.  Mr Bell’s evidence states that some of the internet access occurred when Mr Walker was responsible for classes of learners in practical workshop lessons as well as Planning Preparation and Assessment (“PPA”) time.   The postings show that Mr Walker was engaged in making detailed to contributions during the time he was on-line.
The Code of Conduct and Practice for Registered Teachers which was in force in 2007 required that teachers take reasonable care of the pupils under their supervision with the aim of ensuring their safety and welfare.  Also cited in the Code is an example that teachers may be found guilty of unacceptable professional conduct where they fail to maintain appropriate standards of integrity in management and administrative duties, including the use of school property.
Mr Walker was provided with a laptop computer by his school subject to his agreeing to abide by the school’s Responsible Internet Use policy.  Every time he logged on Mr Walker had to accept the terms of this policy.  This policy expressly required that school computer and internet use must be appropriate to staff professional activities. 
The Committee has seen that Mr Walker’s use of the computer, and in particular his postings, over the three week period when his usage was monitored, were not appropriate to his professional duties.
In clear breach of the School’s policy Mr Walker used the school’s ICT systems for private and political purposes. 
The Committee’s judgment is that Mr Walker’s behaviour fell short of the standard expected of a Registered Teacher and involved a clear breach of the standards of propriety expected of the profession.
Determination of Sanction
In relation to sanction the Committee decided to impose a Conditional Registration Order.
The Committee is satisfied that it is necessary to impose a sanction in this case.  The allegation is serious and the behaviour which the Committee has found proved requires the Committee to impose a disciplinary order to declare and uphold proper standards of conduct.  The Committee notes that Mr Harrington on behalf of Mr Walker acknowledged that a sanction was likely to be appropriate.
The Committee first considered whether to impose a Reprimand.  Mr Harrington submitted that there were a number of reasons why this might be an appropriate disciplinary order.  The Committee accepts that Mr Walker has expressed regret and an apology and has demonstrated some insight into his failings.
However, this was not an isolated incident and the Committee considers that there was the potential for Mr Walker’s behaviour to have seriously affected pupils.  We have found that he made personal use of a school laptop during lessons and whilst in charge of classes, including during practical workshop lessons. 
 Whilst the Committee recognises that learners should be provided with opportunities to work independently we consider, and believe that Mr Walker now accepts, that it was imperative that he gave his classes his full attention.  That Mr Walker thought it was appropriate to access the internet during such lessons was a serious error of judgment. 
In deciding on a Conditional Registration Order the Committee believes it is suggesting a proportionate sanction that will appropriately balance both the public interest and Mr Walker’s interests.  The Committee has had regard to Mr Walker’s previous good history and the relevant testimonials provided as part of the bundle.
There is evidence from the diverse range of testimonials that Mr Walker is a hard working teacher who has helped his pupils improve their attainment and there is no evidence of any concerns about his ability as a teacher.  On the contrary the evidence is supportive. 
The conduct which the Committee has found proved is not fundamentally incompatible with continuing to be a registered teacher and given the testimonial evidence the Committee believes it would be disproportionate to impose a sanction that would prevent Mr Walker from teaching in the future.
The Committee makes a Conditional Registration Order in the following terms.  The Conditions applying to this Order are that Mr Walker must:
1.         Notify any prospective employer or education employment agency of the terms of this Order before accepting employment as a teacher.
2.         If he has worked as a teacher, provide to the Registrar of the General Teaching Council at the conclusion of each academic year, a report signed by his employer(s) (or any relevant education employment agency) covering the previous academic year, confirming that he has not used any school’s ICT equipment outside the terms of that school’s Responsible Internet Use Policy.
The order will apply with immediate effect for a period up to 31 July 2012, with the first report potentially being due at the end of July 2010.   The Committee considers the order appropriately balances the burden of conditions with the public interest.
Mr Walker will be entitled to apply for a revocation or variation of this Order in accordance with Regulation 20 of the GTCE (Disciplinary Functions) Regulations 2001 (as amended). Any such application must be in writing, specifying the grounds upon which he seeks to have the conditions varied or revoked, and must be accompanied by every document he relies upon in support of his application.
The Order will take immediate effect.
Following the expiry of this Order, it will be clearly marked as ‘Expired’ on the Council’s Register.
Mr Walker has a right of appeal to the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court within 28 days from the date he is given notice of this Order

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