Head's two-year torment ends

8th October 2004 at 01:00
Judge criticises fire service for insisting on prosecuting 'dedicated' teacher after arson attack in her school. Joseph Lee reports

A headteacher revealed this week how she spent two years in fear of a prison sentence after an arson attack believed to be by pupils at her school.

Christine Chapman, who was head of Moorside school in Salford, Greater Manchester, for nine years, was prosecuted for a technical breach of fire regulations.

But last week a judge at Bolton crown court let her walk free with an absolute discharge and criticised the fire authority for pressing the charge.

The judge said: "She has dedicated her life to teaching and had the safety of those in her care at the forefront of her mind all the time. No one can expect her to be in all places at all times."

Mrs Chapman was prosecuted after a fire which was believed to have been started by pupils. The arsonists set fire to packaging which had been kept in a stairwell at the school because of a shortage of storage space.

Mrs Chapman, who is now head of Egerton Park arts college in Tameside, said: "I felt the prosecution was unjust. A lot of public money has been spent and one has to say, what has it been for apart from making me very angry?

"They were looking to make an example of me through the courts. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. "Many colleagues have said to me, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' " Thirty children in a first-floor classroom, for whom the stairs were the only means of escape, were treated for smoke inhalation but none was seriously injured.

Mrs Chapman pleaded guilty to charges of failing to ensure a speedy and safe evacuation, because flammable material had been stored along a protected escape route.

She said the ordeal, which took two years from the initial investigation to the court hearing, nearly led her to quit teaching and affected the way she ran her school.

Mrs Chapman recently cancelled a canal-side sponsored walk at her new school for fear of exposing herself and her staff to prosecution if anything went wrong.

Her solicitor, Andrew Dawson, said fire authorities were under pressure to prosecute for breaches of regulations.

Mr Dawson said: "Who would be a headteacher now under these circumstances? Who would be a governor? How can a governor put their hand on their heart and say health and safety is under full control within my establishment?"

Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said the authorities were too keen to take legal action.

He said: "Decisions are made with one eye to the lawyers, and consequently people get worse services.

"We are talking about a headteacher of a school acting in a professional, normal and reasonable fashion. This is not an issue that ever merited prosecution."

Salford LEA was also criticised by stipendiary magistrates at an earlier hearing and fined pound;5,000, for waiting seven months before compiling a health and safety report.

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