Teachers who were forced to clean their own classrooms, while their headteacher frittered the school budget on personal luxuries, may be entitled to substantial compensation, according to a leading education lawyer.
Colleen McCabe, former head of St John Rigby comprehensive, in the south London borough of Bromley, was this week sentenced to five years in prison, after a five-year spending spree using pound;500,000 of her school's budget on shopping trips and expensive holidays.
Former colleagues and pupils packed Southwark Crown Court to hear sentence being passed on McCabe, 51, a one-time nun. She had been convicted in July of 11 sample counts of theft and six of deception.
The thefts came to light in 1999, when the school changed from grant-maintained to voluntary-aided status, returning control of its accounts to the local authority.
McCabe's extravagance had left insufficient funds in the budget to hire cleaners. Instead, teachers were forced to stay after school to sweep floors and clean their classrooms.
Now, Jack Rabinowicz, education specialist with the legal firm Teacher Stern Selby, says that they are entitled to compensation for undertaking these tasks. "Teachers were being asked to do things outside their contract," he said. "If they were staying late for extra-contractual duties, they should be entitled to overtime. The school was taking advantage of their good nature."
Quantifying the overtime due may be difficult in retrospect. But, Mr Rabinowicz believes, a teachers' union could put in a claim on behalf of all staff, calculated on the basis of total hours worked across the whole school.
Tim Harrison, secretary of the Bromley branch of the National Union of Teachers, which represents more than half of the teachers at St John Rigby, is supporting such a claim. He said: "Most teachers, because of their professionalism, will do more than is required for their pupils. But if they did the work, they would be entitled to compensation for abuse of power."
St John Rigby is still suffering from the financial loss. Staff are unable to afford essential items, such as chemicals and practical equipment for science labs.
John Stanley, who took over as head in February 2000, following McCabe's resignation, believes that a compensation claim would be impractical. "Who would the teachers claim the money from?" he said. "Suing the school would add to the crisis and bring us down."
Sir Robert Balchin, former chair of the Grant Maintained Schools Foundation, said: "You get crooks in every possible system. There are vast numbers of things going wrong under the local-authority governance of education.
"Under the grant-maintained system, a much larger proportion of money reached children in the classroom than is the case at the moment."