Lessons to learn from suspension 'debacle'

23rd December 2010 at 00:00
Danescourt case prompts calls for `radical overhaul' of school governance

The Welsh education system must learn from the "debacle" at a Cardiff primary school that has resulted in staff walkouts and votes of no confidence in the headteacher and chair of governors, teaching unions have warned.

Staff at Danescourt Primary, a 328-pupil school in Llandaff, went on strike this month to support four teachers who were suspended in September.

The suspended teachers, who have still not returned to work, are understood to have been told to stay away after criticising the leadership style of headteacher Sharon Randall Smith.

They have subsequently been accused by the school of trying to undermine the head's authority - leading to Cardiff City Council instigating an independent investigation of the situation. The findings were initially due to be reported last month, but have now been delayed until the new year.

Protests have been held outside the school gates, with supporters of the suspended teachers holding placards calling for an end to "bullying", and "mutual respect" at work.

The unions representing the suspended staff have called the governors' actions "unfair, unjustified and punitive".

Speaking to TES Cymru, they said matters could have been resolved earlier with more effective intervention from the local authority and the school's governing body.

The situation raises questions about the ability of councils and governors to deal with complicated employment issues, they added.

Dr Philip Dixon, director of ATL Cymru, said: "I have serious concerns about the capacity of local authorities to give sensible advice and support to their schools in dealing with complex and fraught issues like this."

Dr Dixon said education HR functions should be pooled and run by groups of local authorities to ensure schools get the best advice. Governing bodies should not be allowed to investigate complaints and deal with disciplinary matters alone, he said.

Rex Phillips, Wales organiser of the NASUWT, said the local authority made "serious mistakes" in the way it handled the case and failed to give sufficient help and support to the teachers.

He also called for a "radical overhaul" of school governance. "Governors have too much power invested in them," he said. "Local authorities need to take some of that back."

David Evans, secretary of NUT Cymru, said: "The council should have got everyone around the table and thrashed the issues out a lot earlier. Instead, they prevaricated and we are left with this."

Annie Hovey, the NAHT Cymru officer representing the head, defended the council and governing body's handling of the case, but agreed that earlier intervention could have helped the situation.

She said independent expert advice should be available for councils and governing bodies when dealing with similar matters.

Governors Wales refused to comment on the individual case, but said specialist training for chairs of governing bodies and induction training for all governors should be made compulsory.

Both the Assembly government and the Welsh Local Government Association said it was a matter for the local authority.

Cardiff council, which is responsible for the school, said it would be inappropriate to discuss employment matters while the investigation was ongoing.

TIMELINE OF TROUBLE

March-June 2010: Independent investigation launched after a letter of complaint finds "underlying relationship difficulties" at Danescourt.

September 2010: Four teachers suspended during follow-up investigation.

October 2010: Teaching unions call suspensions "unfair, unjustified and punitive" and pass vote of no confidence in the head and chair of governors. Support headteacher drafted in by the local authority.

November 2010: Parents support suspended teachers at a public meeting.

December 2010: School closed as teachers strike in support of their suspended colleagues.

Original print headline: Unions: lessons to be learnt from suspension `debacle'

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