Fair hearing hampered by the S-word

28th October 1994 at 00:00
Anat Arkin looks at schools that suspend the head first and ask questions later. When the head of a London primary school was suspended last term, it was over allegations of poor administration going back two years, rather than an act of gross misconduct that would make immediate removal from the premises clearly necessary.

Though this headteacher has now been reinstated, the case - one of three recent suspensions of heads in the London area - raises questions about under what circumstances, and by whom, headteachers should be suspended.

Legislation allows the chair of governors of a locally managed school to suspend a headteacher without reference to the full governing body when there is some urgent reason for doing so. But according to David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, some chairs of governors are using this power when there is no emergency and no need to remove headteachers from their schools instantly.

Arguing that there is nothing wrong in an employee, however senior, continuing in post while disciplinary proceedings are going on, Mr Hart says that absence from a school can seriously prejudice a head's position, especially when it continues for a long time.

"The suspension of a head is, in my view, only justified if gross misconduct is alleged or there is some other urgent cause - for example, if the head has been arrested or charged with a criminal offence.

"What worries me is the increasing number of cases where the head is suspended either because of allegations of not discharging his or her duties properly or because of a dispute with the governing body over the respective duties of the governors and the head."

Mr Hart believes there is a case for investigating the role of chairs of governors in disciplinary proceedings against headteachers, and says one possible way forward would be to let a sub-committee of the governing body decide whether there is a prima facie case for suspending a headteacher. This would bring local authority-maintained schools into line with grant-maintained schools, in which a suspension has to be authorised by both the chair of governors and the staffing committee.

There is a danger, however, that involving the staffing committee in a decision to suspend could damage the head's chances of a fair hearing before that committee later on. As John Sutton, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, says: "The important point is that the head should have the right to be heard by those who are not prejudiced in the matter."

Bev Curtis, a director of Educational Personnel Management Ltd, believes that involving a larger number of governors in the suspension of heads is not the way forward. Instead, he says, the regulations for GM schools should be changed. His company, which took over the local education authority's personnel service in Cambridgeshire, has won the Department for Education's agreement to change the articles of government for some of the GM schools it works with. Chairs of governors in these schools now have the power to suspend heads, while their staffing committees consider any substantive disciplinary issues.

"We argued that if the decision to suspend is taken by the staffing committee, then the committee has already prejudiced the position by taking the view that there is an issue to consider," says Mr Curtis.

An alternative would be for one sub-committee of the governing body to consider the case for suspension, another to conduct the disciplinary hearing itself and a third to hear any subsequent appeal. This might be a viable solution in a large secondary school, but in small primary schools there would not be enough governors to fill three separate committees.

Mr Curtis sees no evidence of chairs of governors abusing their powers to suspend headteachers, though he does say that governing bodies are more likely to pick up any problems that arise than local education authorities used to be. But he understands the NAHT's concern about delays between suspension and disciplinary hearing.

"I'm always very keen to get the governors to move quickly because if you suspend someone and don't do anything about it for a considerable period of time, then whether or not the person is guilty or not really becomes irrelevant because they've been out of the school so long, it's difficult for them to get back in."

He says that the way to avoid delays is not to weaken the powers of chairs of governors, but to give heads the right to appeal against suspension if a date for a disciplinary hearing has not been set within a reasonable time - a period of weeks rather than months.

If there is a growing tendency for chairs of governors to suspend heads first and ask questions later, it seems to be confined to primary schools.

David Hart, whose association draws its members mainly from the primary school sector, estimates that there has been a fourfold increase in the number of heads suspended since the introduction of local management of schools. He attributes this increase to several factors, including growing pressure on headteachers in a competitive schools market and some governors' lack of understanding of how to handle disciplinary matters. By contrast, John Sutton has seen no increase in the number of suspensions.

A possible explanation for this discrepancy is that secondary schools have been more successful in attracting governors with experience as employers and a grasp of the difference between their own role in setting policy and the head's role in the day-to-day running of the school. In these circumstances relations between heads and governors are less likely to break down and chairs of governors to resort to draconian measures.

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