Hackney damned again by tribunal

16th August 1996 at 01:00
First there was the Romeo and Juliet row. Then came the notoriety of running the first school to be closed by a hit squad. Most recently there was the early retirement of its education director amid claims of "gangsterism".

Hackney must have thought it had had its fair share of trouble. However, the east London council was this week the subject of further devastating criticism, this time from an industrial tribunal.

The tribunal was asked to rule whether Kingsmead school, the primary at the centre of the Romeo and Juliet row, had been guilty of racism against Matthew Otobo, a black teacher placed there by the council on a "temporary" basis.

He was given a permanent job against the wishes of the head Jane Brown and the governors just before the school took on local management and was then suspended twice, once for allegedly hitting pupils.

In a damning judgment, the tribunal ruled that Mr Otobo had not been the victim of racism but had nevertheless received "disgraceful" treatment because he rarely knew where he stood either with the governors or the education authority.

During the second suspension, carried out on the advice of a council official who apparently later changed her mind Jane Brown, was herself embroiled in controversy because she refused subsidised tickets for a ballet performance of Romeo and Juliet.

Education director Gus John then unsuccessfully demanded her suspension pending an investigation but she was later cleared of the charges by governors and the school received a glowing report from the Office for Standards in Education.

Mr Otobo, who based his claim on the different treatment meted out to him and Ms Brown, was eventually reinstated at a governors' disciplinary panel.

The case has left Kingsmead Pounds 20,000 out of pocket. Hackney council refused to pay because of "a conflict of interest" which they have never publicly explained.

The tribunal says many of the problems arose out of the transfer to local management and some ele-ment of positive racial discrimination by Mr John and two senior education staff.

The tribunal had "misgivings about the evidence" given by Mr John, Wangui Goro, his qualities assessment and development officer, and Letitia Stenning, the departmental personnel officer.

"It has occurred to each of the members of this tribunal that each of those witnesses being of non-white ethnic origin might have undertaken some kind of positive political preference in favour of ethnic minorities. We are led to that view by the demeanour of those witnesses generally and specifically by certain of their evidential responses," said the judgment.

The judgment said of Mr John: "He refers to the 'flagrant disregard for due process' which he attributes to the governing body in its treatment of Matthew Otobo and he says... it is most unlikely [it] would have been so indulgent of a black female teacher, heterosexual or lesbian, as they have clearly been of Jane Brown. He says: 'I am equally convinced they would not have treated Matthew Otobo the way they did if he had been white.' We have been unable to see the basis of these assertions by Mr John."

Mr John himself has taken early retirement, accusing councillors of behaving like gangsters.

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