Judge puts 'flawed' GTC in the dock

14th January 2000 at 00:00
A FIFE supply teacher who was struck off the General Teaching Council register after allegations of falsifying a job reference has won her appeal in the Court of Session after Scotland's top judge described her hearing as "profoundly flawed".

It is only the third time in the GTC's 35-year history that a teacher has challenged a decision to remove rights to teach. Each time, the challenger has won.

Lee Sigourney, a primary teacher, was backed by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers at a cost of pound;30,000 and is claiming a significant victory in her fight to re-establish her career. Her name was never finally removed because of the appeal.

On the back of her victory, she is ready to relaunch an unfair dismissal claim against Fife and proceed with a defamation action in the Court of Session against her former headteacher, Gordon Buchanan, head of Dysart primary in Kirkcaldy.

She also wants the First Minister to revise GTC procedures. No teacher should have to resort to the courts to reverse such decisions, she believes. Some form of ombudsman would be appropriate.

The GTC insists its systems are "robust" despite the view of Lord Rodger of Earlsferry, the Lord President, that the proceedings of the disciplinary committee were seriously at fault.

Ivor Sutherland, the council's registrar, said: "An appeal is not won on the basis that decision was wrong. In my considered and firm view all decisions in the three cases were right but there were small procedural problems en route. The challenges have not been against the decision but against the way the decision was reached."

Dr Sutherland added: "Naturally, I am disappointed to have lost this appeal but I do not think we have got anything to learn and we have no mistakes to rectify. But there may be a lesson for schools that when they write and receive references they ought to hang on to copies."

Four years ago, Ms Sigourney worked at Dysart primary and applied for a job at Crescent Countyprimary in Eastleigh, Hampshire. She was given a reference by Mr Buchanan. Nigel Ash, the Eastleigh head, received a three-paragraph reference but Mr Buchanan said later that two further paragraphs which contained critical comments had been removed. He believed his reference had been deliberately doctored.

Mr Ash subsequently threw out the reference in 1996 without making a photocopy. Neither the original reference nor a photocopy was therefore available for the GTC's disciplinary hearing. Further copies apparently run off Mr Buchanan's computer were not acceptable evidence, Lord Rodger ruled.

He dismisses any reinvestigation of Ms Sigourney's case because "there is no objective check on the witnesses' recollection".

Ms Sigourney has been working at Starley Hall, the independent residential school in Burntisland for the past 18 months, and strongly denied the charges. "I am far too intelligent to assume I could get away with taking off two final paragraphs. The evidence against me was specially generated," she said.

She added that the reference allegations only surfaced a year after she had applied for the Eastleigh post and after she had been encouraged by a senior Fife official to take up a long-term contract at East Wemyss primary.

Carol Fox, the NAS's Scottish official, said: "The union supported Ms Sigourney's legal case against the GTC to emphasise the importance of natural justice. The case does underline the importance of retaining copies of documents such as job applications, references and contracts. Once again, the NASUWT has taken all necessary steps to defend the interests of our members."

Ewan Chalmers, former union secretary in Fife, who promoted Ms Sigourney's case, said: "The quality of the advice to the GTC has to be called into question, as does the relationship between the GTC and local authorities."

Ms Sigourney was represented in the Court of Session by Anne Paton, QC, who this week was sworn in as Scotland's second female judge.

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