No way out

29th February 2008 at 00:00
Sucked into bewildering disciplinary procedures, teachers can find the odds stacked against them, says Nick Morrison

In Franz Kafka's novel The Trial, the hero of the book, Josef K, is caught up in a judicial nightmare knowing neither the charges nor the evidence against him. Unable to defend himself, he cannot escape a system that has its own relentless and unchallengeable logic.

It may be a remorseless vision, but it is one that has certain resonances with the plight of a teacher like Sean. Transformed from a witness to the defendant, he is sucked into a process where a finding of guilt at one stage is seen as proof of guilt at the next.

Nor is Sean alone. There is no figure for the number of teachers who go through a school disciplinary procedure, but anecdotal evidence suggests it is not insubstantial. And once drawn in, many find it difficult to escape.

Sean, who asked for his name and some details to be changed, had an unblemished 25-year career as a teacher behind him when he had an encounter with his head of department. They had an argument in his boss's office, which ended, according to Sean, with his head of department shouting at him to leave the room.

Sean was later summoned to a meeting with his headteacher. He was expecting to receive an apology for being shouted at; instead he was accused of aggressive behaviour. The head found there was a case to answer and Sean was told he would face a formal disciplinary hearing.

"The head of department's account was believed verbatim and mine was completely rejected," says Sean.

A disciplinary committee of the governing body found him guilty, a decision endorsed at appeal. He was given a verbal warning that would lie on his file for six months.

"I felt the head of department didn't have to prove his case but I had to prove my innocence. I felt I'd been through a series of kangaroo courts," he says. "The appeals committee had a document saying I had a case to answer and one saying I was guilty, so they said I must be guilty. I felt completely powerless."

He says he now regrets taking the advice of his union representative, to apologise and accept the least sanction that could be imposed. He now believes this apology was seen as an admission of guilt, undermining his assertion he had done nothing wrong.

One of the key planks of the case was a claim made by the head of department in the first, informal meeting, that Sean had moved towards him after being ordered out of the room. At the time, Sean felt this was a trivial allegation - he says he believed the conversation was carrying on and he moved to hear better - and did not address it. But his failure to challenge this claim was later portrayed as accepting it was true.

"One problem we often encounter is teachers can go quite a way through the process without realising that it is part of the disciplinary process," says Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, the teachers' union.

"If they are in a meeting where concerns are suddenly raised about them, we advise them to say they want to take time to consider those issues so they don't end up being dragged into a discussion that is used against them at a later stage."

Heads have to make their case at a disciplinary hearing, rather than the teacher having to prove their innocence, but Chris Keates says one of the union's major concerns over the disciplinary process is that governing bodies tend to support the head.

"We would like to see a measure of independence in disciplinary hearings and that involves having an appropriate level of challenge from a governing body to a headteacher," she says. A further worry is that in some schools, heads are able to conduct the first stage of gross misconduct hearings themselves.

Competency proceedings can be just as murky. What might seem to a teacher to be an informal chat over performance could turn out to be part of a competency procedure leading to dismissal. If this is a possibility, the situation should be made clear at the start.

Chris Keates thinks that a review of school governance should also look at membership of governing bodies, training and whether one governing body could cover several schools, which could make the governors less likely to automatically back the head.

For some teachers, even if they never come before a disciplinary panel, the fact they have been accused in the first place can be damaging enough.

Alan (not his real name) fell foul of the disciplinary procedure at his London school after he ended a relationship with a fellow teacher. He was subsequently accused of harassing her by the deputy headteacher.

He was suspended for five days by the head who, according to Alan, said he had to support his deputy. Although the head found there was no case to answer, Alan arrived back at school to find his name had been besmirched.

"Every single teacher thinks I'm a harasser and no female member of staff will come near me. I've done nothing wrong but I've been made to feel like a pervert," he says.

While for some teachers a disciplinary hearing means their job is on the line, for Alan it was his reputation that suffered. For Sean, also, although the verbal warning was a shock, it was the stain on his previously spotless record that irked.

"The head clearly regards me as a liar," he says. "It was the first time I had ever been involved in a disciplinary procedure and I feel everything is stacked against the classroom teacher. I love the school and I love teaching but the management has sullied my reputation."

Navigating the disciplinary maze

- Become familiar with the school's disciplinary procedures, even before you are caught up in them. Become aware of what you are expected to do and what your rights are.

- You are entitled to have a friend or representative present at any formal meeting.

- If you are in a meeting that unexpectedly raises concerns about your behaviour or performance, ask for time to consider your response.

- Take advice from your union representative, either at school or branch level.

- If you disagree with the official written version of a meeting, ask for it to be amended or withdrawn. If the head refuses, submit your own written version and ask for it to be lodged alongside.

- You have a right to be told if a classroom drop-in is going to be used to assess your performance. There should also be a written record of this visit, and you are entitled to a copy of it and to add your own comments.

- If a complaint against you results in no action, make sure no record of it remains on your personal file.

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