Head accused of bullying after being treated for cancer tells of his 'nightmare' three years

12th August 2011 at 01:00

A headteacher who was suspended from school when his deputy made false allegations about being bullied has described the past three years as a "nightmare", days after winning a case for unfair dismissal against Lambeth Council.

James Walker, who had been head of Henry Fawcett Primary School in Kennington in London since 1999, was left feeling suicidal after being accused of bullying and harassment by assistant head Penny Bermingham in September 2008.

He had just returned to the school after taking sick leave for a course of chemotherapy when he was suspended.

An employment tribunal said last week that Mr Walker, who had been head of the school for nine years and had two Ofsted reports rating his management as good, was unfairly dismissed by Lambeth Council.

The local authority's own investigation process "amounted to a fishing exercise which focused on obtaining the most damaging information about the claimant", the tribunal found.

"I have been treated horrendously," Mr Walker told The TES. "I had to seek medical help for the emotional state I was in and I felt suicidal.

"To use public funds to run a campaign against a public servant is an outrage and a waste."

Mr Walker also attacked heads' union the NAHT for its lack of communication with him during the investigation into his dismissal and for encouraging him to settle the case before it came to tribunal.

"The NAHT wanted me to settle but I felt that if I settled I would be admitting I was guilty when I had not done anything wrong," he said.

"They handled it very badly. I lost all confidence (in being represented properly)."

The father-of-two has urged headteachers to take out legal insurance instead of relying on the union.

The employment tribunal said it was "troubled by the hostility and lack of any measured approach" by the council in its treatment of Mr Walker and found that the entire process was motivated by an intention to remove him from his role.

The headteacher went on sick leave from his post in February 2008 to be treated for chemotherapy. When he returned in September, Ms Bermingham accused Mr Walker of bullying her.

Lambeth Council suspended him in November 2008 and banned him from contacting colleagues, staff, governors or parents. He was also told he had to contact human resources to access any council leisure facilities. Mr Walker resigned in September 2010.

Mr Walker, who represented himself during the tribunal, was paid a salary of #163;120,000 for the two years he was suspended. But he has since been unable to find work as a headteacher and is seeking compensation for unfair dismissal. A claim for disability discrimination was dismissed by the tribunal.

A spokesman for Lambeth Council said: "We accept the ruling of the tribunal in relation to the finding of unfair dismissal and we will be looking carefully at what lessons need to be learned.

"The education of pupils has always been our overriding priority and when allegations of bullying, financial mismanagement and other performance issues are brought to our attention we must respond immediately."

A NAHT spokesman said: "The NAHT always aims to offer its members the best advice it can and the vast majority of those who seek help find its guidance, rigorous, reassuring and invaluable.

"It is disappointing that in this instance, Mr Walker felt that our counsel was not right for him.

Compensation" disputes- Erica O'Connor, who worked at New Monument Primary School in Woking, Surrey, won #163;400,000 in compensation last year after being forced from her job amid unfounded accusations of Islamophobia.

- Patricia Webber, former deputy head of Lord Wilson School in Southampton, was awarded #163;20,000 by a tribunal after a dispute over pay and lack of support when she returned to work from sick leave. She also won an out-of-court settlement in 2009 from her union, the NASUWT, after it failed to properly represent her.

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