Stop the fraudsters getting away with it

13th December 2002 at 00:00
The General Teaching Council has told a Warwickshire teacher that he can only teach so long as he does not handle money ("Disorganised trip leader loses school thousands", TES, November 22).

The former head of modern languages had mislaid cheques that parents had submitted for school trips and then used funds for subsequent excursions to cover the losses.

It was an open-and-shut case, as he admitted his misdemeanours, and his inability to keep records. But often in financial irregularity cases the facts are much murkier.

Sometimes a teacher will mix school with personal money. In such cases it is unclear whether a teacher is fraudulent or just disorganised. Auditors or police may not find enough evidence to prosecute.

At this point heads and governing bodies may conclude that they can do no more. But they can. The crucial point is that disciplinary action does not demand the same burden of proof as criminal cases. The test is not "beyond reasonable doubt" but "reasonable belief".

If the sacked teacher takes the school to a tribunal alleging unfair dismissal, head and governors wil have to show that, on a balance of probability, they genuinely believed the teacher did what was alleged. A school must also show that it investigated the case as thoroughly as was reasonable, and that there were grounds for believing in the teacher's guilt.

This happened recently when a head, suspicious about a teacher's absence through ill-health, visited a hairdressing salon she owned and found her working there. The teacher claimed that she would have returned after the weekend, and that the governing body could have applied sanctions short of dismissal. But the Court of Appeal found the dismissal for gross misconduct fair, as it was a reasonable response allowed by disciplinary procedures.

Refer to: BHS v Burchell 1978: Ngenfack v London Borough of Southwark 2002; ACAS Advisory Booklet, "Discipline at Work", which includes a code of practice

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