Sacked without the right to have a lawyer

8th September 2000 at 01:00
David Henderson talks to a victim of unfounded allegations whose contract inhibited a proper defence

THE former Aberdeen headteacher sacked after what subsequently proved to be unfounded allegations of sexual harassment expressed relief in the wake of her victory at the General Teaching Council for Scotland's disciplinary committee. She remains concerned for the position of fellow heads in independent schools.

The GTC threw out harassment claims by a lab technician at Albyn School for Girls without hearing defence evidence. The allegations were deployed by the governors to remove Sheena Taylor last September.

A stipulation in Mrs Taylor's contract banned any legally trained person from accompanying her if she were ever to face disciplinary action. A vindicated Mrs Taylor said that individual contracts left heads in the independent sector more vulnerable and that some had had no choice but to go quietly because of their weak employment rights.

Ironically, the Fairness at Work Act which came into force last week would have outlawed the contractural clause that the head feels weakened her defence and that of colleagues. New legislation ensures employees of the right to the representation of their choice.

Mrs Taylor said: "When my contract was drawn up I queried the clause about having a legally trained person present if there was a disciplinary situation, never thinking it would actually become important to me. This is quite usual in private school headteachers' contracts.

"The reason I was given is sometimes things can get down to nitty-gritty legalities and this could allow freedom to look at broader issues and come to conclusions without getting into legal matters."

Mrs Taylor, once a union rep when she worked in the state sector, added: "There is a question here whether basic employment rights are flouted and whether basic justice is being sidelined. Heads are left feeling very vulnerable and I don't think I would sign such a thing ever again. You also see a tremendous number of private school heads who resign, but I wonder how many resign or have pressure put on them."

Judith Sischy, director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, said:

"Very often when people come to the first stage they are told they can bring in a union rep or friend. It may not be appropriate at that stage to have legal representation. But it's totally within their rights to appoint a lawyer. It's to do with the stage of proceedings. No one can prevent anyone from having legal representation."

Mrs Sischy said revised guidelines had been issued to member schools this year about teachers' contracts. "Some were probably out of date," she amitted.

However, it remains a matter for individual schools how they draw up contracts and handle staff discipline. "This is very important and we do a lot of training on contracts for governors, headteachers and bursars," Mrs Sischy said.

Mrs Taylor took her case to an employment tribunal but withdrew after reaching a financial settlement. She says a tribunal would not have given her the opportunity to clear her name because of its focus on legal issues.

The former head, who was only in post for two years, was subsequently reported by Albyn to the GTC and ordered to face its disciplinary committee on misconduct charges, a move that remains a source of profound disquiet.

"It has cost me thousands of pounds to defend myself at the GTC," she confesses. "I wanted not just union representation (by the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association) but by my own lawyer because of the intricacies of this particular case. I chose that, so it has cost me.

"I wonder who pays for the people who face the GTC? They pay for the prosecutor. It sounds odd if you are absolved but you still have to cough up yet more expense. It does not seem quite right."

The SSTA is part-funding her case, although the bulk of legal costs involved in reaching a deal with Albyn, organising a claim through the tribunal system and defending her professional registration at the GTC are being met by Mrs Taylor's family.

Only teachers with available funds can tackle issues of natural justice, she contends. "If you are single, the sole breadwinner, you could not afford this."

Unions say they will often pay to defend members summoned to appear before the GTC, but may not always provide a lawyer.

Raising a further matter of public concern, Mrs Taylor highlights the vagueness of the law surrounding harassment allegations. "It's as if you are put in the position of having to prove your innocence which is totally contrary to British law. You are surely innocent until proven guilty. You are put in an almost impossible situation."

Mrs Taylor is uncertain how she will be viewed in her attempt to re-establish her teaching career at a comparable senior level. "I have been cleared but the sadness is that I have had to wait all this time and I am still sacked and still retain this slur. I will have to wait and see how employable I am. Coming back to the issue of who pays: I have paid psychologically."

Mrs Taylor is working temporarily on alternatives to exclusion with Aberdeen, back in the state sector where she feels her experience would not have been replicated. "The private sector is not as tight as the local authority," she reflects.

Leader, page 18

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