A FORMER Worcester teacher and scout leader has been jailed after arranging to meet a 'decoy' child for sex, claiming he was 'lonely' living in his city flat after his marriage collapsed.

Robert Howe, a former teacher at Tudor Grange Academy in Worcester, was sentenced to two years in prison when he appeared at Worcester Crown Court earlier this afternoon.

The heavy-set 34-year-old, his face partially obscured by his Covid-mask, remained motionless in the dock for a few moments and the colour drained from him as he learned his fate and was led away by a dock officer carrying a black backpack.

Howe, a bisexual former geography teacher, who had been head of the department, believed he was chatting to a ‘cute’ 15-year-old boy following the breakdown of his marriage.

Worcester News: GUILTY: Robert Howe. Photo: West Mercia Police

In reality he was communicating with an undercover police officer (UCO) working to protect children.

Howe had already admitted attempted sexual communication with a child between April 13 and 21 this year and another charge of arranging or facilitating the commission of a child sexual offence at an earlier hearing at Worcester Magistrates Court.

Until these offences came to light he had been a man with no previous convictions and was described by his barrister as leading 'a pro-social life'.

He developed 'cold feet' and did not, in the end, meet with the 'child' on April 22 this year, blocking him from his phone ahead of their planned encounter at his Worcester flat.

Caroline Harris, prosecuting, said Howe was caught because of Project Atari which is designed to identify those who commit sexual offences against children using undercover officers as decoys in online chatrooms.

Howe had an account with gay dating site Grindr before moving on to communicate with ‘the boy’ on WhatsApp.

During one exchange the UCO told Howe he was not sexually experienced but that 'didn't deter' him as he gave an assurance ‘we can take it slow’ before discussing other sexual activity.

“The defendant asked ‘when do you want to meet?’ There were several references about the UCO finishing school and about where the two should meet” said Mrs Harris.

"Arrangements were put in place for the two to meet and go to the defendant's own flat.

"Sexual expectations were again discussed and it was agreed the two would meet after school and go to the defendant's home and engage in sexual activity," said Mrs Harris.

Howe also asked for ‘selfies of the purported child’ and upon receiving one replied ‘cute’ before he asked to see more.

When the UCO asked the defendant what he was looking forward to most, Howe replied: “Touching you.”

However, the defendant blocked the decoy before any meeting could take place and the remaining messages went unanswered and calls went directly to voicemail.

The teacher was arrested on April 22 this year as he left work and his iPhone and other devices were seized.

Howe refused to give officers his pin number but the SIM card matched the WhatsApp number.

Howe answered 'no comment' to questions put to him in interview.

Alun Williams, defending, said Howe was 'not only of previous good character but of previous positive good character having made a substantial contribution to society as an educator and scout leader', pleading guilty at the earliest available opportunity.

"I would respectfully submit that demonstrates remorse and insight" he said.

Mr Williams added: "This offence has already destroyed everything that was positive in his life.

"He has lost his job and will be unable to return to the teaching profession and unable to return to voluntary work with the Scouts."

Howe had blocked the decoy at 7.30am on the morning they were supposed to meet.

"He decided that this was a huge mistake. His actions were, effectively, a cry in the dark" said Mr Williams.

The defendant had also referred himself to the Lucy Faithfull Foundation to address his behaviour.

"There was a trigger for his offending. The trigger was the breakdown of Mr Howe's marriage," said the advocate.

Mr Williams told the court that this had 'hit him very hard indeed'.

"He felt a grief for the relationship and a crushing feeling of loneliness. He had to move to a one bedroom flat.

This was on the eve of the pandemic which deepened his sense of isolation and despair.

"He was looking for contact, affection and validation from any source. He was on a number of dating sites - heterosexual and Grindr."

Judge Nicolas Cartwright said it was a mitigating factor of the case that 'sexual activity was incited but no activity took place' and that he voluntarily withdrew from the arrangement.

Worcester News:

"The boy did not exist" he said.

However, the judge added: "You are an experienced school teacher. You knew all about safeguarding and the risk to children under 16 from adults who have a sexual interest in children.

"You thought you had come across a 15-year-old boy on the internet.

"Despite the fact that this person with whom you were communicating clearly indicated more than once that they were still 15 and still at school you engaged in sexual communication."

The judge jailed him for two years and made a sexual harm prevention order for 10 years.

This restricts Howe's contact with children of both sexes and his use of the internet and internet-enabled devices, including his use of anti-forensic, encryption and file wiping software and his deletion of his search history.

Devices must be made available for inspection by a monitoring officer and all passwords must be made available. As a sex offender, notification requirements now apply to Howe.

As previously reported, Tudor Grange Academy in Bilford Road issued a letter to parents on May 27 to inform them of the suspension of geography teacher Robert Howe.

The letter from headteacher Mr Butler said: "As you may be aware, Mr Howe has not been teaching at the school since 22nd April and I would like to take this opportunity to explain why.

"I am very sorry to have to tell you that we were informed by the police that he had been arrested and charged for online offences committed in his personal life, outside of school.

"As you would expect and in line with our safeguarding procedures, he was immediately suspended pending an investigation, and consequently Mr Howe no longer works at the school."

The school told parents they wanted to "remind and reassure" them that all teachers go through "rigorous" background checks, which Mr Howe passed.

The letter said: "It is important for you to know the police have confirmed none of the offences they are investigating are in any way connected to the school or anyone in the school, of course with the exception of Mr Howe himself.

"I would also like to remind and reassure, you that all school employees go through a rigorous ‘safer recruitment’ process including an enhanced DBS check, a List 99 check and all staff must complete regular safeguarding training.

"This was all in place as it should be for Mr Howe who passed all the necessary regulatory checks and completed all the training requirements.

"All teachers are expected to be role models for students and the standards expected of teachers at our school are very high, which is why this news was so shocking."