Earlier today, Gavin Bevis at the BBC reported the story of Louise Pearson, a now-former social sciences teacher at Noel-Baker Academy in Derby, where she had worked since 2007.
The nation’s Teaching Regulation Agency (TRA) has decided to ban Pearson from the profession, following allegations that she had falsified the coursework of two students, essentially committing plagiarism on their behalf.
According to the TRA’s findings, in June 2019, the exam board Oxford Cambridge and RSA (OCR) flagged two cases of potential plagiarism in works submitted by two of Pearson’s students.
OCR flagged the potential issues and then submitted them to the school, which conducted an investigation. The school then found that both pieces contained sections that were identical to a work submitted by a different student who had left the school in 2018.
However, when they interviewed the students involved, the students claimed that they had not seen the work in question. One student said that they had not completed the relative assignment, and the other said that they had written about a different child.
It was then the school found out that printing logs indicated that Pearson had printed off the former student’s work the month prior, pointing the finger at her.
The school suspended Pearson pending further disciplinary investigation. The next month, OCR concluded that a malpractice offense had been committed and, in February 2020, they referred the matter to the TRA, who concluded their investigation in September of this year. That is the earliest she can apply to have the prohibition limited.
The ban prevents Pearson from teaching at any school, college or other institution. The order cannot be reviewed until at least September 2026. Pearson did not attend the hearing and has not given a reason for her actions, nor has she provided any statements of regret or remorse.
It’s a very serious punishment for a very serious infraction. But, while it’s a positive end to the story, there are several questions that remain unanswered.
Why This Case Stands Out
There’s a simple reason that this case is getting the attention it is. It’s a tale of a teacher who committed plagiarism on behalf of two of her students.
This is, to put it modestly, insane.
Teachers are supposed to be defenders of academic integrity. It’s bad enough when we hear tales of teachers, principals and other school officials committing plagiarism in their work outside the classroom. This case takes things to another level by not only committing plagiarism in an assignment, but doing so, seemingly, without the knowledge of the students.
Though Pearson likely thought she was helping the students involved, she ended up harming them greatly, as they were the ones who initially fell under initial suspicion. It is unclear what would have happened if there had not been clear evidence pointing to Pearson being the one to access the paper.
This case is an extreme one and that does make it both rare and newsworthy. However, it’s rare cases that often test such systems. They provide scenarios that may not have been considered and can cause established processes to fall apart.
In that regard, it seems that the system worked well.
The UK, in general, takes a more centralized approach when it comes to academic integrity. Where, in the United States, institutions are the final arbiter of academic integrity issues, the UK has nationwide bodies, such as the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, that oversee such cases and can hear appeals.
However, the institution is still the front line of defense and, by all accounts, it seems that they handled things well. They investigated the case thoroughly, didn’t jump to conclusions about the students, and quickly got to the truth of the matter.
So, while it seems like a happy ending to an unfortunate story, there are still a few things that worry me.
Two Ongoing Worries
While things seem to have largely worked out, there are two lingering questions that the report leaves open.
First, why did it take over four years for action to be taken against Pearson? While I understand that the unusual nature of the case (as well as the pandemic) means that some delays were inevitable, the original discovery was in June 2019. That’s an extremely long time, even for a case with so many layers.
That’s true even with all the bouncing around the case did in the early stages. According to the TRA report, they were notified in February 2020. That’s three and a half years the case was completely in their hands.
Though Pearson was quickly suspended after the allegations surfaced, that’s still a long time to leave a case like this in limbo. While no other students were put at risk, it still leaves open questions for Pearson, the school and her former students for an unnecessarily long period of time.
The second question is whether there has been any further investigation into Pearson’s career. At the time the issue was flagged, Pearson had been teaching at the school for 12 years.
While it’s entirely possible that this was her first and only instance of committing plagiarism on behalf of students, it’s also possible that this was simply the first time she was caught. Right now, there seems to be no way of knowing.
On one hand, this makes some sense. She’s already been banned and, since it is likely both impossible and improper to punish any students she aided, there simply isn’t more punishment to hand out.
However, if she has done this before and got away with it at the time, it’s likely worth exploring how it happened and what can be done to ensure it doesn’t happen again. To prevent future cases of academic integrity from slipping through the cracks, you can’t just study the cases you catch, you have to look at the ones you miss.
This is a rare opportunity to seek those cases out and use whatever is gleaned to further improve systems down the road.
Hopefully, it’s not an opportunity that is missed.
This story is, in a word, insane. There’s no other around it.
A teacher not only failing to stop academic dishonesty but causing it and doing so seemingly without the knowledge of the students goes beyond pretty much anything I’ve heard of.
It’s an extreme case, and one largely without parallel. That said, I do have praise the school, ORC and the TRA for their handling of it. Though it certainly was not a quick process, it’s difficult to judge too harshly given that the case is so strange and the pandemic likely caused extra delays.
That said, extreme cases often provide rare opportunities to examine policies and procedures in a new light. If that is happening here, it’s not being detailed publicly.
While taking strong action against the teacher involved is a positive and necessary step, so is trying to learn from what happened and finding ways to prevent it in the future.
Because, while these cases may be rare, they are serious enough that they warrant protecting against. Even if that protection is almost never needed.