This week Marjorie Evans returned to work in triumph after clearing her name. Now she aims to be a champion of falsely accused teachers. Julie Henry reports.
DETERMINATION and the backing of a strong union helped Marjorie Evans through the 18 months that she was banished from her school, she says.
The head returned this week after allegations that she mistreated pupils were rejected by the school governing body. She was greeted by a "welcome back" banner and cheering parents who thrust a bouquet of flowers into her arms at the gates of St Mary's junior school in Caldicot, Monmouthshire, south Wales.
Speaking from the office she has occupied for 13 years, she told The TES:
"I felt very emotional after keeping myself in check for so many months. I had a lump in my throat.
"I was a bit apprehensive but I am so pleased and relieved to come back to such a positive atmosphere.
"Going round and saying hello to the children and getting hugs from them was wonderful. It was one of the things that had kept me going while I was out of school.
"I need to take things slowly now to get back into the swing of things but I am delighted at long, long last to reclaim my school.
"Teaching is the only thing I've ever wanted to do and, despite what has happened, I still feel the same."
Her advice to other teachers in a similar situation is: "Don't give up, don't be bullied, and get a good union.
"I was lucky to be able to pick up the phone. I've not had to bottle it up. I think that was one of my coping mechanisms - that and gardening."
The National Union of Teachers, which backed her appeal against suspension, has good reason to be pleased with the victory. The union claims a 10 per cent rise in membership in Wales over the past year is the result of publicity generated by the case. Gethin Lewis, NUT Wales secretary, said:
"I have no doubt that 1,500 teachers joining up is in part down to the Marjorie Evans case."
Her 80-year-old mother, with whom she lives, has been a pillar of strength. Support from a more unusual quarter came from the Prince of Wales, who sent a letter of sympathy and invited her to Highgrove. But Mrs Evans refuses to confirm if she met the Prince earlier this year.
Her struggle may not be over yet. She faces the challenge of working with staff who accused her of pupil mistreatment. And there is an inspection on the horizon.
She denies reports that she is calling for disciplinary action against staff who made allegations. On her first day back she shook hands with two colleagues who gave evidence against her.
Her mood is conciliatory. "I have asked myself over the past 18 months what went wrong. I think petty disagreements snowballed into this major event. I intend to sit down with staff and talk about what happened."
Sandra Cutler, the teacher who gave evidence against her at the appeal, has been on long-term sick leave since the end of last year. The school secretary Fiona Gibson and two dinner ladies, who also gave evidence against her, were not at the school on Wednesday. Those who gave evidence against the head refused to comment on her return.
The NUT has confirmed that a compensation claim for stress and tauma running into five figures could be on the table. Their case may be strengthened by a Welsh Assembly inquiry into the handling of the affair by governors and the education authority in Gwent, which has been roundly criticised.
David Griffiths, a former Gwent education director who worked with Mrs Evans for more than 15 years, described her as "a principled lady of enormous courage" who had been pilloried because of a "difference of educational philosophy". "Marjorie Evans leads from the front and is not afraid to make difficult decisions and that is what led to this appalling affair," he said.
The 56-year-old divorcee, originally from a Staffordshire farming family, attended a girls' secondary modern at a time when skirts had to be an exact length and boater hats could not be removed until pupils were inside the school. She said the only people who got to the grammar school were "geniuses".
An encouraging, if strict, head mistress saw her through O-levels and A-levels and on to teacher training in Monmouthshire.
She remained an active NUT member even after securing her first headship because she considers herself "a teacher first and foremost". Sixty per cent of her time at St Mary's was spent in the classroom.
She now sees herself as a champion of those falsely accused. She has called for clearly defined national procedures that would kick in when allegations are made against teachers.
"I am happy to give people the benefit of my experience because my ordeal will not be the last time a teacher's career and character is put on the line," she said.
* CHARGES that the head of a Northumberland school mistreated pupils have been dropped.
Elizabeth Carey, 51, was suspended in October last year from Milfield first school in Wooler.
Parents had complained to police that she had assaulted eight of her 10 pupils. They said children had been slapped on the legs and body.
Ms Carey's case was to be heard at Berwick-upon-Tweed Magistrates' Court but the Crown Prosecution Service has decided not to proceed because of insufficient evidence.
Ms Carey, who is being represented by the National Union of Teachers, remains suspended pending an inquiry by the local education authority.
BATTLE OVER A SLAP CHARGE
September 1999 - Marjorie Evans suspended from St Mary's following allegations that she slapped a boy.
October - charged with assault.
July 2000 - found guilty by magistrates who impose a three-month suspended sentence.
September - appeal court clears Mrs Evans. Fresh allegations of pupil mistreatment. Governors impose second suspension. Two weeks later they lift suspension and put her on paid leave of absence.
October - police say no more charges will be brought. Governors start disciplinary inquiry.
December - Mrs Evans says she will return to work. Governors threaten to suspend her and decide on disciplinary hearing.
January 2001 - NUT launch legal action backing her return.
March Cardiff High Court says school disciplinary procedures are inadequate. Governors change procedures and begin disciplinary hearing.
March 16 - Mrs Evans cleared by governing body.
March 21 - she returns to school.