In the aftermath of the Jeremy Forrest affair – not that there can ever really be an end point, given the huge fractures which have cut across the lives not just of the girl involved and her teachers, but of their respective families and communities – it has been instructive to watch and read how people have responded. In the fallout, an array of similar stories have emerged, like this one; tales of affairs that seemed like romantic fairy tales, but which ended in disappointment and betrayal. Commentators have discussed how teenagers are always likely to fall in love with their teachers, how age gaps should not matter, how it is somehow better because he didn’t actually teach her directly – all sorts of opinions have circulated.
Underlying these opinions is a sense that it probably wasn’t really the right thing to do (hence, one assumes, the disapproving public reaction to Anne Diamond’s dismissal of the story as “a bit of so-what-ish”), but it has been quite remarkable how few people in the public eye have been prepared to commit themselves to saying that this relationship was always, and still is, wrong. Dani Garavelli, writing in the Scotsman, offered perhaps the most sensible comment on why this is so: “Pupils are off limits … always remember: where someone is in a position of trust, the age of consent rises to 18. Just as rape is rape is rape, when it comes to their relationship with teachers, children are children are children.”
And this is absolutely right. A teacher is a significant person in the life of school children of any age – up to and including (arguably beyond) the time at which they leave school. A teacher is in a position of authority – a position of power, even – and this brings with it a moral duty to respect the boundaries of relationships in much the same way as a parent respects the boundaries of relationships with his or her own children. It can never be an equal relationship. Teachers should of course be engaged – very closely engaged – in the lives of their pupils, for they should care deeply about what happens to them, but (as the vast, vast majority of teachers know and understand entirely) they cannot and should not become more significant than this. They should not become their lovers or their partners. I say again – it can never be an equal relationship, and it is incumbent upon the adult to ensure that it never develops in a way where this may be called into question.
So – there is no “moral dilemma”, as Jeremy Forrest is reputed to have said. Teacher-pupil relationships are never right.