Sacked for speaking out

11th November 2005 at 00:00
School dismisses union rep who dared to publicly criticise one of PM's favourite heads. Graeme Paton reports.

A school union representative who publicly criticised one of Tony Blair's favourite headteachers has been sacked.

Eileen Hunter, a member of the National Union of Teachers, spoke out against the management style of Sir Dexter Hutt, the executive head of International school and community college, Birmingham.

The row came to a head in May this year when Mrs Hunter was quoted in The TES criticising Sir Dexter's behaviour policies, which centre around sending badly-behaved pupils to an isolation unit for up to three days.

Now Mrs Hunter, head of psychology and sociology at the school, has been formally dismissed for gross misconduct after appearing before a panel of governors.

The NUT says the sacking raises serious concerns over the ability of school union officials to represent teachers and legitimately challenge the authority of senior school staff.

Roger King, the Birmingham NUT secretary, told The TES: "It seems clear to me that the school saw Eileen as a thorn in their side, which accounts for their decision to dismiss her.

"She had never, at any point in the past, been formally disciplined by the school. It is a very uncomfortable situation when a school's first attempt at a resolution with a union representative is to suspend then dismiss her for gross misconduct.

"They never at any stage approached me about concerns they had with Eileen or NUT representation at the school."

Mrs Hunter, 42, a former civil servant, joined the International in 1999, four years before it became part of Ninestiles federation of schools under Sir Dexter's executive headship.

In recent years Sir Dexter has built a reputation as one of the best heads in the country as the three schools which originally made up the federation - Ninestiles, Waverley and the International - recorded some of the most improved GCSE results in the Midlands. The Waverley has since left the federation.

In 2004 Sir Dexter, who is listed in Who's Who, was knighted for his services to school leadership and the same year was appointed to a leading position with the Commission for Racial Equality.

His profile has led a series of leading politicians to visit the federation, including the Prime Minister and David Miliband, then school standards minister.

Mrs Hunter, the International's NUT representative and union convener, has repeatedly clashed with Sir Dexter over a series of issues, including proposed staff redundancies and allegations that teachers were unhappy with his management style.

In September 2004, a Guardian report said that she had given Mr Miliband a "very hard time" about staff workload during the minister's visit to the school.

In May this year Mrs Hunter held a series of meetings with staff, including teachers and caterers, over proposed redundancies at the International school, and on May 16 NUT members voted on whether the union should mount a campaign to leave the federation. The motion was backed 17 to four, Mrs Hunter said.

However, the relationship between Mrs Hunter and Sir Dexter had already soured three days earlier when an article appeared in The TES in which an unnamed NUT representative and another teacher (Mrs Hunter later admitted she was the NUT member) criticised the "behaviour for learning" scheme, Sir Dexter's much-praised discipline programme.

Under the hard-line policy, pupils are given a series of warnings and punishments, culminating in a spell at the school's isolation unit.

Separated from their friends until the end of the day, with meals delivered and toilet breaks supervised, pupils get no formal teaching and are made to fill in worksheets under the watchful eyes of school staff.

The programme, which was praised by Ofsted last year, has won national recognition and more than 100 schools have visited Ninestiles to be trained in Sir Dexter's techniques.

However, Mrs Hunter said many teachers felt it was too harsh and pupils sought time in the unit as a badge of honour.

The view was reinforced in June this year by Mr King, the Birmingham NUT secretary, who told the Guardian: "Isolation could make students who are already disaffected become even more alienated."

Mrs Hunter was suspended on May 25. A report in the Birmingham Mail later in May told how the teacher was "led out of a packed classroom by a senior member of staff and the school's bursar".

She alleged this week that Sir Dexter also held a mass meeting of International school staff in which he pored over the TES article on an overhead projector, rubbishing its more critical contents.

Mrs Hunter, whose teaching has never been criticised, was formally sacked for gross misconduct on Tuesday after a hearing at the school. She will appeal against the decision.

After the hearing, she told The TES: "I am not saying I am a great teacher, but I dedicated myself to my students and took a personal interest in their life outside the school. I have always loved working at this school because it is a real focus of the community.

"However, I believe Sir Dexter has a very top-down leadership style; teachers have to follow what he says without question. I think it is very worrying that an NUT rep can be dismissed just for standing up for her members."

This week Sir Dexter refused to comment, pending an appeal against the dismissal.


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