26th September 1997 at 01:00

Following the inspection of my college, inspectors made comments about my professionalism at the feedback session and later in their report. The principal gave me a "poor performance" letter, but would not discuss it because it might prejudice an appeal hearing. Is this democracy?


What you really mean, I imagine, is, "is it fair?" Without knowledge of the circumstances, and without seeing the report that is hard to say. I cannot, however, see anything fundamentally wrong with the conduct of either the inspectors or the principal.

Inspectors are charged with the duty of reporting honestly on what they see and learn in the course of what is, by its nature, a limited observation of the college. When they report on something, or someone, which they believe to be unsatisfactory, it would be an unwise principal who simply ignored it, unless he or she was absolutely convinced, and had evidence to support the conviction, that a mistake had been made.

Equally, where the teacher whose performance has been judged to be unsatisfactory has a right of appeal, a principal would be unwise to discuss the issue beforehand in a way which might prejudice the appeal.

The existence of an appeal is the best protection against unfairness and, as very few of us can act effectively for ourselves in such circumstances, you would be well-advised to consult your professional association before deciding whether or not to appeal.


I was employed as a supply teacher, covering for a long-term illness for over two years, during which time I carried out all the normal duties of a full-time teacher. I was never given a contract and my post was never confirmed. The post was "phased out" last July. Have I been fairly treated?


On the basis of what you have told me, you have been treated unfairly and your erstwhile employers have been guilty of serious breaches of employment law.

Although you were employed as a supply teacher for an undefined period, presumably because the period of absence was uncertain, you were entitled to a statement which set out the terms and conditions under which you were employed. This might have been in the form of a letter rather than a separate document. The employer is legally bound to supply such a statement.

Having been continuously employed for more than two years, you enjoyed full rights of employment protection. You should not have been dismissed without the appropriate written notice and you may well have an entitlement to a redundancy payment.

Without a full knowledge of all the relevant facts, this can only be speculation on my part. You should certainly consult your union or a solicitor to ascertain whether you have been wrongly treated.


Is there a risk that a school could be sued for damages because a pupil has failed an examination?


A number of cases have come before the courts in recent years in which plaintiffs have sought to establish claims against schools or local authorities for alleged failures to carry out educational obligations. Fortunately for the defendants, none has so far been successful.

Worries that teachers, like doctors, might be in constant fear of being hauled before the courts when things go wrong may be justified in cases where pupils suffer personal injuries while under their supervision, but, so far at least, not when they fail to pass their examinations.

A recent judgment in the House of Lords in a case relating to housing the homeless, (O'Rourke v Camden), is relevant to this, in that their lordships held that the creation of a duty in public law does not establish a cause of action in private law by way of injunction or claim for damages, unless an Act of Parliament specifies otherwise.

Put in plain terms, this confirms the principle that, while a public body, for instance a school, may be subject to judicial review for failing to carry out a statutory duty, it is not open to an individual to seek damages or to obtain an injunction in respect of the impact of that failure upon himself.


Can the wearing of a knife by Sikh pupils be reconciled with the law banning knives from schools?


Section 4 of the Offensive Weapons Act 1996 made it an offence to have any article with a blade or point on school premises, but it allowed a defence if the article was worn for religious reasons or as part of a national costume.

The knife carried by Sikhs, known as the kirpan, clearly falls in the religious category, it being an obligation on initiated Sikhs to wear it at all times. Schools should be sensitive to a requirement which is of deep significance to the Sikh community while, at the same time, having a proper regard to the safety of pupils.

Sikh leaders are aware of the problem and have been happy to co-operate in establishing guidelines which meet the needs of schools. Essentially, such guidelines impose a maximum size on the kirpan worn to school and provide that it should be worn and concealed in such a way as to make it virtually impossible to be withdrawn from its sheath.

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