Hearings against teachers have more than doubled since schools took over managing their own staff. But, asks Anat Arkin, are disciplinary procedures being misused?
Dugald Wylie's second suspension did not affect him as badly as the first. He had already survived an attempt by governors to sack him from the headship of Kempsey primary school and this time he knew what to expect. "Having been through the cycle once, your imagination is tempered by experience," he says.
Mr Wylie was originally suspended after a closed session of Kempsey's governing body heard allegations from the chair of governors and another member concerning the management of this village school near Worcester. Rather than using the school's competency procedure to tackle Mr Wylie's alleged failings as a manager, the chair of governors, Chris Hindle, called him to a disciplinary hearing where the panel recommended Mr Wylie's dismissal - even though under locally agreed procedures staff can only be sacked for a first offence if it is one of gross misconduct.
An appeals panel later reinstated Mr Wylie. This panel did voice some concerns about the management of the school but its chairman has told The TES that these related to competence, not conduct.
A few weeks after Mr Wylie returned to work last September, he was again suspended "pending an enquiry into the management at the school". Twelve weeks later, he has been told to expect disciplinary proceedings against him.
Chris Hindle stands by his use of disciplinary, rather than competency, procedures, maintaining that Mr Wylie could have changed his allegedly inappropriate behaviour. Backed by Hereford and Worcester County Council's education department, he also denies that Mr Wylie's second suspension had anything to do with the first.
These denials have not convinced a group of parents calling themselves the Committee in Support of Proper Governance of Kempsey Primary School. In a series of newsletters, these parents have protested about the secrecy surrounding both suspensions and called for the resignation of the whole governing body.
Hereford and Worcester's county education officer has written to parents to say that Kempsey's governing body has acted properly throughout. The letter goes on to stress the importance of privacy "to avoid prejudicing any further enquiries that might be needed" and to observe that "the governing body is not accountable to parents".
Mr Wylie, who was suffering from stress-related illness during most of the period of his first suspension, says he might have applied for early retirement on grounds of ill-health had he not come across Redress, a voluntary organisation that gives legal advice and support to teachers.
Dugald Wylie's case is one of around 320 that Redress has handled since it was set up in July 1995 by a group of teachers and former teachers, some of whom already belonged to the Bullied Teachers' Support Network. Redress has taken over the role of this informal organisation and puts teachers in touch with each other as well as intervening directly in cases.
More than half these cases involve misuse of competency procedures, according to Redress's national secretary, Jenni Watson. Where the victims of what she describes as the ultimate form of school bullying are headteachers, it is governing bodies who ignore the well-established principle that competency procedures should be supportive rather than punitive. But a more common scenario is for governors to rubber-stamp the decisions of a head determined to get rid of a classroom teacher.
In one recent case, the governors of a Northamptonshire primary school allowed its head to suspend a teacher twice on medical grounds, on both occasions ignoring a doctor's certificate that she was fit for work. After her second suspension, this teacher was referred to the authority's occupational health physician, who gave her a clean bill of health. She has now been told that she may return to school but will face disciplinary action.
Jenni Watson, formerly deputy head of Sydney Smith School in Hull, was herself sacked after collecting evidence that caretakers were making false overtime claims. She successfully complained to the Secretary of State about the composition of the governors' disciplinary panel and got a ruling that she had been unlawfully sacked. She has now settled for early retirement and a six-figure sum.
It is rare for the Secretary of State to intervene in cases where governing bodies are acting unreasonably. Usually the Department for Education and Employment says that the Secretary of State does not find it "expedient" to intervene in the affairs of locally managed or grant-maintained schools.
Mrs Watson believes that the number of trumped-up charges of incompetence or misconduct has grown hugely since the 1988 Education Reform Act gave schools responsibility for managing their own staff. Other commentators, including Bev Curtis, a director of the educational personnel consultancy EPM Ltd, argue that far from sacking people indiscriminately, most heads and governors are reluctant to start competency procedures and often leave problems to fester.
Figures collected by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), however, do seem to point to a growth trend. In 1992-93, the association handled just 16 competency cases and 135 disciplinary cases. In the following year the numbers had shot up to 147 and 185 respectively, an increase that continued in 1995-96, when the union helped members in 324 competency and 269 disciplinary cases.
Martin Pilkington, the ATL's head of legal and member services, says: "I would suggest that the very considerable increase in competence as a live issue indicates that perhaps it is being used as an alternative route to redundancy. "
Jenni Watson believes that often governing bodies abuse their powers or allow heads to do so because there is no nobody to tell them they are getting things wrong. "They don't know what they don't know, so they don't ask," she says. "In some local authority schools LEA officers are bought in to clerk meeting and if the governing body does something unconstitutional, the clerk will point that out. But in many places that facility is not available and schools buy in the cheapest clerking there is, which is often just note-taking."
Even when governing bodies do receive professional advice, they sometimes reject it, which is what happened at Belfairs Community College in Southend. The trouble at this grant-maintained school started when Marie Younie, as a newly appointed head, introduced management changes which proved unpopular with some senior staff.
A couple of years later, after accusing Ms Younie of various management failings, governors announced they were taking the day-to-day running of the school away from her and giving it to a "policy-making group" of senior teachers plus the school bursar.
Ms Younie was in hospital when this happened but on her return she tried to carry on working to statutory terms and conditions of employment which give heads responsibility for the day-to-day management of their schools. She was suspended and asked to attend a disciplinary hearing.
Redress then discovered that the panel of governors due to hear the case against Ms Younie had not been properly constituted. Ms Younie's union, the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT), also argued that the proceedings used against her were not valid and took out a High Court injunction stopping the governors from holding a disciplinary hearing pending a full hearing of the case.
That evening the governing body met and appointed a new disciplinary committee which decided to sack Marie Younie. The NAHT went back to the High Court for an injuction to stop the governing body from acting on this decision. The union also applied for Elizabeth Mashford, the chair of governors, and another governor to be jailed for contempt of court. Although the two governors escaped a jail sentence, the judge who granted the second injunction ordered the governing body to pay the NAHT's hefty legal costs.
But Ms Younie remained suspended. She has now settled for what David Hart, the NAHT general secretary, describes as "one of the most financially advantageous" packages he can remember negotiating. Mrs Mashford insists the governing body followed proper procedures. "Everything we did was done in good faith, on advice and in the best interests of the school," she says.
The governors might have been acting on advice, but it was not that of the educational personnel unit of Essex County Council which recommended a "middle way" between doing nothing and sacking Ms Younie. "They chose a course of action that we couldn't support so we parted company amicably and they then sought advice from another organisation," says a spokesman for Essex Personnel Services, which continues to work with the school on other matters.
Had the governors at Belfairs accepted the advice of the school's former authority, they might not have ended up in the High Court. But sometimes it is the local authority that gets things spectacularly wrong.
In 1995, governors at Walworth school in Southwark, south London, charged an art teacher with incompetence amounting to gross misconduct; they recommended that he should be sacked. His salary stopped immediately, even though under the 1988 Education Reform Act a teacher's salary has to be paid until an appeals panel confirms his or her dismissal.
Under disciplinary procedures agreed between Southwark Council and local unions, teachers' salaries could be stopped before appeal, though they were entitled to backpay if their appeal succeeded.
It was not until the teacher spoke to Rob Prior, now chairman of Redress, that he realised these procedures were flawed. An industrial tribunal confirmed this, ruling that the decision to stop his pay amounted to constructive dismissal. Arguing that he had been unfairly and wrongfully dismissed, the art teacher took his case to another tribunal, which ruled in his favour.
Bow County Court then ordered Southwark Council, which had already given the teacher some of his back pay, to pay him a further Pounds 15,562 in back-dated salary. The council challenged this order but the court last week dismissed its application for this judgment to be set aside.
Many of the people Redress has helped claim their unions do little to protect them. The NAHT comes off better than most, though it too has its critics. Rob Prior says: "In the old days the unions could have a chat with the director of education, who could then straighten a headteacher out. But it's not like that any more and I don't think the unions have really adapted to LMS (local management of schools)."
The unions strongly reject these criticisms. The NUT would not comment on individual cases, but a spokesperson said: "The NUT does everything that is possible to represent members if there is a disciplinary charge against them. In some circumstances, it is not in the interests of that member or of the profession for the case to be taken all way to an industrial tribunal."
Jerry Bartlett legal officer for the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), says he understands the frustrations of Redress members but insists that the union does all it can to help members whose careers are at risk. The trouble, he says, is that the law today gives employees little protection.
Certainly, with industrial tribunals unable to award more than Pounds 13,300 for unfair dismissal, gung-ho heads or governing bodies may decide that this is a price worth paying for getting rid of someone they no longer want to employ. Tribunal orders for reinstatement are rare and usually unenforceable, according to Jerry Bartlett.
But there are teachers who fight unfair dismissal and manage to stay in the profession. They include Rob Prior who brought a judicial review against the Secretary of State's failure to do anything about his own unlawful dismissal, and now heads a department in a London school.
"I was lucky in many ways," he says. "But people can be dismissed for the most trivial reasons and I suspect most of them will never teach again."
* Redress. Tel: 01405 764432