'Inferior' woman fights for justice

27th May 2005 at 01:00
Female head claims unfair dismissal by Exclusive Brethren sect which says women are men's helpmates, and mobiles and PCs are Satanic

The female head of a school run by a Christian sect which believes women were created as "helpmates" to men had her pay cut and was replaced by a male member of the group, an industrial tribunal heard.

Sue Collins, 54, was employed by the Three Counties Education Trust, a school run by the Exclusive Brethren, an evangelical sect which restricts members' contact with the outside world. Mrs Collins is a Roman Catholic and not a member of the Brethren.

After nearly a year in the job, the trustees of the school cut Mrs Collins's pay from pound;31,529 to pound;20,571. Her hours were reduced by 40 per cent and many of her responsibilities were taken over by a senior male member of the organisation brought in over her head, it is claimed.

Explaining the Brethren's views Ben White, one of seven trustees, told the tribunal: "We are Christians so we follow the Bible and in the Bible God created man and he created woman to be their helpmates. But he created men to be responsible."

The independent school, in Farnham, Surrey, which has 62 pupils aged 11 to 17, is part of a network of 43 in the UK run by the Brethren. The schools ban pupils from reading fiction and believe that modern technology, such as computers and mobile phones, is the work of the devil.

The Ofsted praised standards at the schools earlier this year.

Mrs Collins took the Three Counties trust to a tribunal last week claiming unfair dismissal and breach of contract. She told the Croydon hearing that she had been promoted from assistant head tutor to head tutor in October 2003, after the previous head had failed to turn up for work.

She said: "I was informed of lesson parameters and what clothing to wear and not to wear. I was provided with the materials and facilities that I needed to fulfil my role and was informed as to the religious beliefs of the organisation which would prevent me from utilising certain technology, such as computers, televisions or video recorders."

But a year later Mrs Collins, who also taught history at the school claimed she was invited to a meeting by the trustees and handed a new contract without warning. "After the meeting I opened the contract and among the many points of dispute I was horrified to see that my hours were cut to 60 per cent of a week," she said. When she complained, the contract was withdrawn and she was told she would only be employed as a history teacher.

She was signed off work with stress and resigned on September 13 last year.

After the hearing, Mrs Collins said: "If I was a man, this probably wouldn't have happened. They do have a view that women are inferior and should stay at home. They probably thought I didn't need a full-time job.

"Once the women are married they are expected to stay at home and have lots of children to increase the numbers of Brethren. Women are supposed to be subservient to their men. They are not even allowed to speak during religious services."

The Trust, which does not operate a set fee structure at the school, allowing Brethren parents to pay what they can afford, claims that Mrs Collins left of her own accord after they brought in a new head simply to assist her.

Simon Rich, another trustee, said that he had been shocked when Mrs Collins "blew her top" over the new contract.

The father of six told the tribunal: "Her reaction shocked me to quite an extent. If she could react like that, what could happen if she was still feeling the same way when she was in front of the students? It was for the protection of our children, which is why we set the school up in the first place."

The hearing was adjourned until July 19.

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