Dorothy Stiven talks to Brenda Davies, whose battle over corporal punishment has led to a claim of constructive dismissal. "It was the worst case of bullying among small children I had ever come across in my 27 years as a teacher. In front of the class I said to the little boy who had been kicked: 'I will give you a choice. You can either forgive them or you can take this ruler and give them a little smack, once, on the back of their hands'."
Brenda Davies remembers the Friday afternoon last October in her Year 1 classroom. A five-year-old boy with special needs had, it had been reported, been "kicked like a football" in the playground by six of his classmates.
When the boy decided to take up Mrs Davies's option to hit the other children, the storm of controversy which followed resulted in her receiving a final written warning at a disciplinary hearing in November. Last week, she resigned from Tennyson Road primary school in Luton, Bedfordshire, where she had taught for seven years.
Giving the boy this choice, she maintains, "wasn't about physical punishment, it was about empowering him. Kidscape, whose guidelines we followed in school, say teach self-assertion; that's what I thought I was doing."
The case quickly attracted media attention and fuelled the debate on corporal punishment, which had been ignited by several highly publicised cases raising concerns about poor discipline in schools. Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard and Home Secretary Michael Howard, both advocates of a return to corporal punishment, were forced into an embarrassing climbdown when John Major insisted they toe the Government line in a Commons vote.
At her semi-detached house on a quiet estate in Stevenage, Mrs Davies sits with a ring-bound file open on her lap. It is full of letters, press cuttings and background material to the case for constructive dismissal which she is set to take to an industrial tribunal.
A warm, direct woman, married for nearly 29 years with two grown-up sons, she talks nineteen to the dozen ("my mother always said I was too honest for my own good"). She seems both perplexed by the national attention the incident in her classroom has generated nationally and excited by the intense media coverage.
She regrets some things she has told journalists - for example, that some years ago she had slapped a child and put "a tiny bit of tape, as a joke" across a child's mouth. But she is emphatic that whatever mistakes she has made in the past, in the incident last October she used sound professional judgment within the guidelines set down by the school.
"On the Monday after it happened, I said to the children, 'Nobody here should be afraid to come to school - now you all know what will happen if you hurt anybody.' The boys had drawn a picture of the incident so I held it up and said 'that was Friday' then turned it over to the blank side and said, 'this is today. Now we'll make a fresh start'. In the weeks following, the children in the class were all happy, (the boy) had more confidence, they had gelled. "
She was shocked, then, to find out that five parents had sent letters of complaint to the headteacher, Graeme Russell. In November, despite having no other blemishes on her record, she was given a final written warning at a disciplinary hearing.
She was transferred from her class of five-year-olds to a Year 6 class and from then on, she says, was subjected to intimidation and harassment.
"Initially staff and parents were supportive but as soon as I said I wanted to appeal against the decision I felt I was being driven out. They didn't want the publicity. People felt too intimidated to speak up on my behalf. The school management wouldn't support me and many of my colleagues, who had been great friends, turned against me. " Neither Mr Russell nor the chairman of governors at the school, Simon Crow, wish to talk about the case and parents are reluctant to comment. The local education authority, Bedfordshire, has no direct comment to make, although a spokeswoman said: "There has never been a situation in any of our schools where we have condoned a child smacking another child."
Mrs Davies's union, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, withdrew its backing earlier this year - this, Mrs Davies claims, is because she refused to accept Mr Russell's instructions not to talk to the media. Jerry Bartlett, legal officer of the NASUWT says: "Brenda chooses not to accept our advice over the conduct of the case."
Mrs Davies will be represented at the tribunal by Redress, a voluntary organisation which gives advice and support to teachers who have suffered bullying and intimidation at work. Currently they are dealing with around 30 cases of teachers facing dismissal over child discipline issues. Their national secretary, Jenni Watson, says: "Teachers have protections in their contracts to safeguard them against unfair disciplinary processes. I don't believe that in Mrs Davies's case the processes applied were fair ones."
Mrs Davies took sick leave at the beginning of December and has not been back to the school since. "Eventually my doctor told me that the stress had got to the point where I needed psychiatric therapy. I don't want to have to retire on the grounds of ill-health," she says. "I want to go back to teaching."
As she sits at home fielding calls from national newspapers and women's magazines, surrounded by boxes of teaching materials, it is difficult to imagine when Mrs Davies will be able to use her copy of Themes for Infant Assemblies again, but Jenni Watson of Redress doesn't harbour any doubts: "I have every confidence that Brenda Davies will be in a classroom situation again."
As she leafs through her file, Mrs Davies fights back tears. "Often I picture the faces of the staff and think of all the laughs we had in the past seven years." Her voice trails off, then she regains her composure. "But this is my campaign to stand up for what I believe to be right."
CLARITY IS KEY IN ANTI-BULLYING STRATEGY
The Department for Education and Employment's guidelines for parents and families explains that parents, as well as staff and pupils, have a right to know about each school's anti-bullying policy and encourages parents to become involved in developing it.
Bedfordshire has its own set of guidelines. The main points include: * take bullying seriously; * set out clear procedures (with deadlines for action where possible) for dealing with complaints and incidents; * designate named members of staff to deal with complaints, to co-ordinate implementation of the policy and to advise in serious cases; * provide specialist training for the designated persons; * explain the significance of adult behaviour as a positive or negative role - for example, do not become a bully while tackling a bully; * counsel victims and bullies as part of the procedures and ensure that victims feel supported, not ignored or undermined.
Kidscape, the London-based charity that teaches children practical ways of keeping safe from abuse and bullying, publishes a training guide, How to Stop Bullying in which there is an anti-bullying policy which many schools use as a model. Its principles are: * All staff, governors, pupils and parents should have an understanding of bullying; * bullying will not be tolerated; * clear procedures for reporting bullying should be understood and followed.
Further information is availalbe from Kidscape, 152 Buckingham Palace Road, London SW1W 9TR