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'Bullied' into teaching RE

Principal denies teacher resigned after being forced to take religious studies class. Tara Fawcett reports

A college principal has denied accusations that staff bullied a teacher into teaching Islamic studies, but attributed the teacher's resignation to a breakdown in her relationship with her line manager, a tribunal has heard.

Penny Parsons is claiming unfair dismissal against Josiah Mason college in Birmingham after she was forced to teach religious studies to a class of 15 and 16-year-olds. The nursing teacher had not taught the subject for 20 years and did not feel as though she was experienced enough to comply with the order, the employment tribunal in Birmingham heard last week.

Jean Gillhespy, a former team leader of health and social care at the college, told the hearing that Mrs Parsons "changed" after the request for her to teach RE.

"She went from being one of the calmest members of staff to one who was very, very anxious, and she was constantly worried about what people would think of her.

"She broke down on several occasions and I suggested she should go home a few times.

"She was being pushed into a corner and was like a frightened rabbit."

Chris Grayson, principal of the college, told the tribunal that Mrs Parsons developed a negative view of the college mainly because of her "frosty" relationship with line manager Morag Wigg and her belief that Ms Wigg was not fit to be line manager.

"Almost simultaneously two issues confronted Penny: a new line manager with new ideas and the request to teach religious studies," he said.

Mr Grayson said he still believed the college was right to ask Mrs Parsons to teach RE from September 2002 and denied she was bullied into it.

He said: "All teachers and lecturers for higher education know that they are required to show a certain degree of flexibility."

Birmingham's employment tribunal heard that the college had been struggling to find someone to teach religious studies since 2001.

Mr Grayson said that they advertised and interviewed on a number of occasions for the post but did not find a suitable candidate.

Mrs Parsons said: "The question of whether there were any other teachers who had experience in religious studies was put to you very early on. Do you think as principal it was your duty to look into this?"

Mr Grayson replied: "The information about suitable candidates was taken from the skills audit. It is a huge system - it might be that not all of the skills were recorded in the database."

He told the tribunal that the order to teach the subject was met with hostility by Mrs Parsons.

Chairman of the tribunal Mr Hewitt said: "Since there was such an extreme reaction from Mrs Parsons, who was before this time described as an excellent teacher, did you not consider why she reacted like this and try to find an alternative teacher?"

Mr Grayson replied: "The college had absolutely no motivation for persecuting or making any member of staff feel uncomfortable. At the time we thought she was the best person for the job. If we had our time again we would probably take a different course of action."

After teaching religious studies for three weeks, Mrs Parsons went on sick leave on October 4 2002, before resigning in December of that year.

The case was adjourned until December 15 .

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