Feltham teacher wins tribunal

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
The Prison Service breached the Disability Discrimination Act when it excluded basic skills head. James Harrison reports

A DYSLEXIC teacher with "a passion for re-engaging the educationally disaffected" has won a discrimination case against the Prison Service.

Jon Wainwright, 52, suffered a nervous breakdown following a damning HM Inspector of Prisons report into Feltham young offenders institute, where he was head of the basic skills department.

The report described Feltham as one of the worst jails in the prison system and "rotten to the core". But it saved some of its harshest criticism for basic skills provision, describing teaching standards as "unsatisfactory" and "poor".

Following the October 2000 inspection, new targets were set by Feltham's education department to address the concerns raised in the report.

A three-day Employment Tribunal hearing, in Croydon, Surrey, noted that - at the time of the 2000 report - Mr Wainwright had been head of basic skills for only a month. As a result of the pressure he faced, Mr Wainwright became ill and spent 15 months on sick leave. In the interim, his post was filled by his deputy. But when Mr Wainwright applied to return to work, he was blocked by Paul McDowell, the prison's deputy governor, on "efficiency issues as well as criticism of performance" in the 2000 inspection report.

Mr Wainwright brought a claim under a clause of the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, which says that an employer discriminates against a disabled person if he treats him less favourably than others to whom that reason does not, or would not, apply.

He also accused Mr McDowell of using him as a "scapegoat for his mismanagement of the education department".

The tribunal was told that Mr Wainwright had been a contract sessional teacher employed by Nescot (North East Surrey College of Technology), the body which provides education services at Feltham.

He joined the institute in April 1997 to teach numeracy and literacy to inmates in both the psychiatric centre and the anti-bullying unit. Mr Wainwright also spearheaded the institution's dyslexia assessment programme.

In September 2000 - a month before HMI visited Feltham - he was promoted and became head of the basic skills department, with 18 staff, after the previous incumbent stood down because of ill health.

But the regime and culture within the education department also took its toll on him and, Mr Wainwright claimed, contributed to his illness. He said he was stunned when, in early 2002, after being told by his doctor he was fit to resume work, Mr McDowell excluded him from the prison.

He told the tribunal: "I have been excluded from my post in favour of the person who filled it during my prolonged absence due to illness brought on by my place of work.

"Had I not been ill, I would not have been away from my post and my deputy would not have stepped into my role."

Mr McDowell, giving evidence, said: "It was my judgment that (Mr Wainwright) would not be able to deliver the work we would expect. I was concerned about his ability to manage and control his classes, in addition to a real failure in his area of responsibility."

But the three-strong tribunal unanimously agreed that Mr Wainwright "was treated less favourably than those who were not absent".

After the decision, a jubilant Mr Wainwright told The TES: "I am absolutely delighted.

"I have won back the reputation it took years of hard work to get."

He added: "It was really important to me when the panel said that all the allegations of incompetence did not stand up, after having seen all the independent reports of my competence and skills."

Mr Wainwright said he regarded the tribunal's decision as a recognition of the part the regime at Feltham had played in his health.

"It was the work environment that made me ill, but the 2000 report was the straw that broke the camel's back," he said. "Many colleagues went sick before the report and many became ill afterwards.

"I see this decision as being not only for me, but for all the other people who have been damaged by the abusive regime at Feltham."

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