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A college photography tutor has been forced to resign for treating mature students like adults. Jennie Bristow reports from Teeside

Northern exposure

In May Denis Dunning, a photography lecturer at Stockton and Billingham College of Further Education, suddenly disappeared. His students on the Wednesday night City and Guilds 747 course in Professional Photography wondered where he was. 'First we were told that he had suffered a bereavement, then we were told that he was ill', said Steve Williams, aged 44.

It soon became clear that something else was going on. College staff raided the photography studio, breaking open cupboards and seizing students' work. Students Julie Clayton (24), Steve Jackson (46) and Pip Oram (38) were called in and interviewed by college management. On 22 May Andrew Smith, a 35-year-old student on the course, was sent a questionnaire by John Kirk, executive director of Human Resources at the college. It began 'I am conducting an inquiry into possible serious misconduct by staff and/or students at the college', then asked Andrew Smith whether he was acquainted with Julie, Pip or Steve, and whether he used his home darkroom for processing nude or semi-nude photographs. By the end of June, Denis Dunning had resigned from his post, having signed an agreement that he would talk to nobody about the case, and the students were informed that the CG747 class was cancelled. The story of alleged seedy goings-on in the photo studio quickly made it into the national media.

Serious stuff; yet the students and Dunning are accused, it seems, of no more than taking some nude or semi-nude pictures of each other which, for an art class, does not seem like such a big deal. It is an evening class aimed at mature students, all bar one of which is over 23. Since Denis Dunning has worked at the college for over 20 years, you might presume him to be a valued member of staff. So why did the college react in such a heavy-handed way, with raids, inquisitions and forced resignations?

The college's reaction reflects the new rules and fears governing the management of further education today. Denis Dunning unconsciously transgressed the professional boundaries now placed between students and tutors; and the college, in its desperation to avoid a scandal, cracked down. But in reacting so strongly, the college has brought to light the ambiguities and contradictions inherent in managing relationships between tutors and students in education today.

The main controversy has centred on some photographs taken of Julie Clayton, mimicking poses made famous by Christine Keeler, the call-girl at the centre of the 1960s Profumo scandal. Some of these appear to be nude pictures, although Colin Harper (47), who took them, claims that Julie was wearing a swimsuit. Harper is outraged by the notion that these photographs are pornographic. 'None of my work is pornography: there are no shots of naked men or women in my portfolio.' In any case, argues Pip Oram, why would it have mattered if the photographs had been nude? 'At the time when all of this was going on, I was asked by one of the art teachers to pose nude in the art class. What I can't work out is - it's legal to go to one of the art classes and sit baring everything and get paid for it, but I can't do it for 125th of a second in the photo studio behind screens.'

Pip Oram has a point. Life drawing forms an acceptable part of most art classes, and given the lack of formal rules at Stockton and Billingham College governing the taking of photographs, it is difficult to see why students taking pictures of other students in swimming costumes should have caused such outrage.

Oram also showed me some more photographs used in the inquiry into Denis Dunning. Taken a year ago for Dunning's own MA course studies, they show a naked Pip in various poses. Pip Oram says he offered to pose for Denis as a mate, and argues that there is nothing wrong with his posing for the pictures, or Dunning taking them. To the college, however, they were clearly suggestive of an 'improper', intimate relationship between the tutor and his student.

More than ever before, further and higher education institutions are concerned to prevent any 'non-professional relationships' between staff and students. At its 1995 conference, the university and college lecturers' union NATFHE passed a motion stating that such relationships were 'ill-advised, unprofessional and to be discouraged'. NATFHE's advice booklet on the subject, published in 1996, makes clear that formal rules do not have to be broken for college management to discipline its staff: college managers 'are prepared to treat as disciplinary offences a whole range of behaviour towards students which is not explicitly forbidden'. This obviously includes sexual relationships. Just what else is included in the 'range of behaviour which is not explicitly forbidden' depends, it seems, on the mindset of college management.

When Steve Jackson was interviewed by Stockton college management, the questions soon moved on from the Julie pictures to Dunning's relationships with the students. 'We used to go on field trips to the Lakes, and they started interrogating me about that', he says. 'At one point they showed me a picture of Den with his arm around Julie, and asked me, what is the nature of their relationship? They started talking about Julie writing to Den and feeding him out of yoghurt pots. They showed me a tube of chocolate spread found in a cupboard in the studio, and said that there were photos of Julie with chocolate over her body.'

According to Steve Jackson, there are innocent explanations for all of this in a class where students and tutor are mates and have a laugh together. And even if all of the accusations were true, you might say, so what? If a 24-year-old woman wants to have an intimate relationship with her tutor, get her tits out for the lads or even be photographed wearing nothing but chocolate spread, that is surely up to her. But such broadmindedness is banned in further education today.

Normal, adult behaviour, when viewed through the prism of harassment codes and the paranoia of college management about 'unprofessional relationships', can become distorted and the worst can be assumed. When the rules state that everybody should be treated like children, adult behaviour is simply not on, and 'mature' students have to be treated like vulnerable children.

From nude shots to digestive biscuits to bad language, everything that went on in the CG747 class is indicative of an environment that is less like a schoolroom than a gathering of mates. The students would come together and get on with their work because they liked being there and doing photography: not because they had to be there, or wanted qualifications. One student objected to the way he was now being fast-tracked through his certificate by a college keen to get the passes it needs to protect its funding: 'When I started, they told me there was no time limit on the course. Now certain people are saying that Denis was not getting people through exams fast enough.'

The joking, camaraderie and intimacy among the students continued even when the college added a 15-year-old girl, Rachel Hingley, to the class. 'We treated her like one of the lads', said another student. Rachel Hingley and her parents have supported Dunning, and as Rachel says, if the college really thought there was a problem they should have notified her parents or social services. But it was not the presence of a minor in the class that caused the problems.

The rules governing sexual relationships between students and tutors exist regardless of the students' age: the argument is that tutors are in a position of power over their students, so the relationship is necessarily unequal and even coercive. Indeed, any behaviour that would be deemed unacceptable towards minors is now frowned upon even if the students are adults. Imagine the outrage if a teacher allowed his class of under-16s to take sexy pictures of each other. If adults and children are now said to occupy the same position in relation to their tutor, it is little wonder that the college turned on Dunning.

Twenty odd years ago, when Denis Dunning started at Stockton and Billingham, further education was a different world and the complex of rules and codes governing 'appropriate behaviour' did not exist. Why would he think there was anything wrong with allowing his enthusiastic class of mature students a free reign with their ideas? And why would the twenty-thirty-forty something students in his photography class, to whom a bit of tit and bum is as commonplace as fish and chips, see anything even slightly perverted in pictures of a 24 year old in a swimming costume?

Andrew Smith, a builder by trade, says the affair has 'left me with a bitter taste in my mouth'. The others nod in agreement. That bitter taste comes from losing their course and their tutor amid rumours that they are perverts and weirdos ('We're called the nudie club at college, and it is horrible', says one). These students are not perverts or weirdos, and I do not believe their tutor was either. They are adults on the sharp end of a college which treats everybody like kids, and seems to care more about its reputation than the students' enjoyment of the course they have paid for and invested their time in.

So much for 'adult education'. Maybe 'Stockton and Billingham Nursery' would make a better letterhead.

Julie Clayton (24) was photographed by fellow student Colin Harper

Reproduced from LM issue 104, October 1997

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