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Blind teacher awarded pound;60,000

Liz Abbott, an north-east London teacher, has successfully sued her school for discrimination, reports Amanda Kelly

A BLIND teacher who became "a burden" has been awarded damages of pound;60,000 after her school failed to fund the classroom assistant she needed to do her job.

Liz Abbott, 51, won her case for discrimination and constructive dismissal against St Mary's Roman Catholic primary school in Chingford, east London, after resigning on health grounds in June 1997 suffering from depression and stress.

Mrs Abbott, who has been visually impaired from birth, started teaching 30 years ago. She needed an assistant for safety reasons and to help with reading and marking pupils' work.

She joined the school as a support teacher in 1987. When she took over her own class a year later, the pound;12,000-a-year post was funded by the Disablement Employment Service. But the introduction of local management in 1992 meant the school had to pay out of its own budget and then reclaim the cost from the education authority.

The hours of Mrs Abbott's long-standing assistant were cut from 30 to 20 and, when she retired in 1996, she was not replaced.

A 1999 employment tribunal dismissed the school's claim that it had not hired a new assistant because of budget difficulties and concluded: "The reality was that Mrs Abbott had becom a burden to the respondent and one they no longer wished to bear." A subsequent appeal by the school failed.

Speaking at a London press conference this week, Mrs Abbott, a widow, said:

"Nobody deserves this kind of treatment. I felt very let down and used by people I had trusted. It took the decision of an impartial tribunal to prove to me that this whole experience was not my fault. I was beginning to doubt my own abilities, not only as a teacher but as a person."

With her guide dog at her side, she said that, despite her victory, poor health meant she would not return to the classroom.

Sharon Liburd, a solicitor for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, which backed Mrs Abbott's action, said: "The school failed to take reasonable action to ensure that Mrs Abbott could function as a classroom teacher and the local authority failed to honour its equal opportunities policy."

A spokesman for Waltham Forest LEA, which will pay damages and legal costs, said: "Mrs Abbott's complaints were strongly contested by the local education authority on behalf of the governing body of St Mary's Catholic school at the time of the industrial tribunal.

"But the LEA has taken counsel's advice and has reluctantly agreed to settle on the basis that this would limit on-going legal costs," the spokesman said.

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