Staff 'hit by Soham effect'

11th August 2006 at 01:00
Lawyers say councils are now so jumpy about child protection they are sacking staff without a fair hearing, reports Michael Shaw

Staff falsely accused of abuse are being sacked, as paranoia grows about child protection, say campaigners and lawyers.

Education lawyers have warned that the rights of teachers and other school staff are being ignored by schools and local authorities desperate to avoid scandal.

In the latest case last month, Mark Sutcliffe, a learning mentor, won an undisclosed out-of-court settlement from Rochdale council after his dismissal from Balderstone technology college.

Mr Sutcliffe, aged 42, was suspended in 2002, then arrested in 2003 after three young men accused him of indecent assaults they said had occurred around 14 years earlier.

The case was thrown out by a judge at Manchester crown court because of lack of evidence.

But the school wrote to the parents of every pupil informing them of the arrest and a committee of police and local authority representatives was set up to decide on Mr Sutcliffe's future.

He was criticised for allegedly taking a pupil to a McDonald's restaurant, which he denied, and over an incident in which a young lodger reported him to police for indecent assault, despite the fact that the accusation was later retracted.

Although none of the serious allegations was proved, the committee decided last year that he should be dismissed for "conduct unbecoming to a learning mentor".

Last month Mr Sutcliffe took Rochdale Council and the school to an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal. The council refused to comment on the case.

Mr Sutcliffe said he was keen to return to the classroom.

"I can understand that local authorities are jumpy about child protection after the investigations into Soham, but it is very, very distressing when you become a victim of false accusations," he said.

"All it takes is one allegation and you are immediately vilified. Leaving my job felt like a bereavement."

Jenni Watson, a legal consultant specialising in education cases, who advised Mr Sutcliffe, said his dismissal was one of a growing number of similar incidents. She said: "The mantra seems to be that the child must always be believed, while any idea of fairness for the teacher goes."

Her concerns are shared by the campaign for Falsely Accused Carers and Teachers (FACT). Spokeswoman Gail Saunders said that local authorities were understandably sensitive following high-profile cases such as the Soham murders and the killing of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie.

However, the balance had swung too far against school staff.

"There is a sense of hyper-sensitivity," she said.

"A teacher can do nothing wrong and can be completely exonerated but they can still have their career destroyed because of a false allegation. Their only 'crime' is to be falsely accused."



Other falsely-accused teachers who have been unfairly dismissed: John Davies. The Kent special school headteacher was suspended in 1998 and dismissed in 2000 after allegations that he had mistreated pupils, even though a police investigation in 1999 found no case to answer.

Kent Council paid an out-of-court settlement, but Mr Davies still had to attend General Teaching Council disciplinary hearings, where he was accused of abusing children by sending them on cross-country runs. The GTC cleared him last month.

John Whitehead. Mr Whitehead, a special needs teacher from Coventry, was accused of deliberately trapping a pupil's fingers in a door. Although the police found no case to answer, Mr Whitehead was dismissed for gross misconduct.

The teacher, who had an unblemished 23-year record, campaigned for four years before clearing his name at an industrial tribunal last month.

Iwan Rees The Powys teacher was the victim of false allegations by two girls, aged 12 and 16, who said he had touched and tried to kiss them. The police found no evidence to prosecute, but he was sacked after a local authority investigation.

After a three-year battle to clear his name, an employment tribunal found that he had been unfairly dismissed and he won a pound;22,000 settlement from Powys Council in January 2005.

Sue Bacchus. The Birmingham primary teacher was suspended in November 2000 for "inappropriate classroom practice", including accusations that she had physically and mentally abused pupils.

Charges of assault and wilful mistreatment of children were dismissed by magistrates, but she was sacked in 2002. Mrs Bacchus won an employment tribunal in 2003 after a three-year battle to clear her name. However, the stress of this battle took its toll and it contributed to the break-up of her marriage.

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