Cancer teacher had no classroom cover

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
AN employment tribunal has given Perth and Kinross's education department a severe reprimand for "mishandling" the case of a principal teacher stricken with cancer.

The tribunal awarded almost pound;30,000 in compensation to Guy Hawksford, who was at the time head of physics at Kinross High. It ruled that Mr Hawksford had suffered unlawful disability discrimination at the council's hands.

The pound;29,069 figure included pound;3,000 for injury to feelings through the "deep distress" suffered by the cancer victim.

The tribunal singled out for criticism Charles Kiddie, then a head of service in the council's education department and now headteacher of Perth Academy.

It found that Mr Kiddie's "whole mishandling" of the situation had caused Mr Hawksford to lose "all faith and trust" in the official who conceded when questioned that he had never considered reasonable adjustments which would have facilitated Mr Hawksford's return to work.

Mr Hawksford was diagnosed with cancer in December 1997, subsequently underwent an operation and remained off work until January 1998.

He then suffered medical complications which meant he frequently had to leave his class for short periods which prevented him continuing as a teacher and caused him to take sick leave in May 1998.

Mr Hawksford felt that early medical retirement was "the only way forward" but his application was refused and that decision was upheld by a review hearing.

The teacher then wrote in April 1999 to David Reid, head of Kinross High, to say that to prevent him being in breach of contract by leaving his class unattended he would need cover, quickly and at short notice, for his absences.

Mr Reid replied: "It may not totally surprise you that I do not see myself being able to guarantee the support that you have asked for."

The tribunal noted: "Mr Hawksford was quite adamant in his evidence that if the respondents had said they would provide cover, he would not only have been able to return to work but in fact would have done so."

The judgment said it was clear from Mr Kiddie's evidence that "at no time" until a meeting on September 18, 2000, did he look at the question of adjusting Mr Hawksford's working environment.

The tribunal added: "Mr Kiddie conceded that this whole matter could have been handled better and that the respondents ought to have sought more information on the applicant's precise medical needs and alterations to his work which might have been possible.

"He conceded that the matter was not properly addressed and in hindsight it should have been addressed, particularly in respect of the applicant's anxieties regarding disciplinary repercussions if he were to leave class without cover."

In deciding that discrimination had taken place the tribunal stated: "We had little difficulty in concluding that the applicant was placed at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with other persons who were not disabled.

"If reasonable adjustments could have been made we were under no doubt whatsoever that the applicant could have returned to work and would have wished to do so."

The tribunal stated that from April 1999 until October 2000, the council gave "no thought whatsoever" to its obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 or the Disability Discrimination Code of Practice 1996.

The total compensation award for loss of earnings amounted to pound;52,014 but deductions were made in respect of earnings and sick pay allowance as well as a 25 per cent contribution because of Mr Hawksford's withdrawal from discussions with his employer on September 18, 2000. This action was "to some extent unreasonable".

A spokesperson for Perth and Kinross said: "We accept the findings of the employment tribunal and, in light of these findings, we shall review procedures for support to staff in education and children's services."

Mr Hawksford is now teaching at Blairgowrie High and has the classroom support he asked for from the start, partly subsidised by the access to work programme. Perth and Kinross is making a voluntary contribution.

Disability legislation warning, FE Focus, page 37

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