Uneasy balance of teaching needs and falling funds;Management amp; Finance;Update

12th November 1999 at 00:00
When relationships in schools break down they often break down irretrievably and positions become entrenched. That appears to be what happened at a school in south Wales where the governors ignored an employment tribunal's recommendation to reinstate a special needs teacher who was unfairly dismissed.

Cerys John was made redundant from one of her two half-time posts at Coedffranc junior school in Skewen last year when the local education authority, Neath Port Talbot, cut the school's special needs funding. Mrs John alleged that she was dismissed because of her support for Alan Powis, another teacher at the school who had been dismissed and is taking legal action against the governing body and the local authority.

Mrs John maintained that a drop in external special needs funding did not mean there was any reduced need for special needs teaching at the school. The tribunal agreed, noting that different tests were used to decide how much extra help children needed and how much special needs funding each of the authority's schools should receive.

The tribunal chairman, Patrick Webster, said that if the school's governors had consulted Mrs John or her union they would have realised that they had confused a reduction in external funding with a fall in the number of children needing extra teaching. "The governors fell into such errors as to make their decision unreasonable," he said.

Mr Webster added that meaningful consultation, which the law requires, might have prompted the governors to explore ways of avoiding redundancies, for example, by dipping into the school's reserves. Since the shortfall in the school's revenue was caused both by a reduction in special needs funding and by an expected fall in the school's roll in September 1998, the tribunal also saw "considerable force in the suggestion that general teaching should be cut, not merely special needs". Instead of considering these alternatives, the governors relied heavily on the advice of the school's then head, Sheena Ball.

Following the decision to make the two special needs teachers redundant, she "upgraded" a large proportion of the children on the special needs register. Describing Miss Ball's actions as "strange and disturbing". "We think it likely that subconsciously her dislike of the applicant, and in particular of the applicant's actions in support of Mr Powis, together with her unapproachable and inflexible managerial style, caused Miss Ball to give misleading advice, subconsciously, to the governors." The tribunal concluded that if the governors and the LEA, which supported them, had acted reasonably, Mrs John would probably have been kept on full-time.

Mrs John continues to teach at the school in the mornings and is waiting for a remedial hearing from the tribunal which could order the governors to give her afternoon contract or award compensation.

Meanwhile, parents claim the school is failing to give specialist support to more than half the children registered as special needs.

"Having wronged Mrs John and the most vulnerable children at Coedffranc, the school's decision not to reinstate is indefensible," said Jenni Watson, national secretary of the teachers' support network Redress, who represented Mrs John at the hearing.

Gethin Lewis, Wales secretary for the NUT, the largest teachers' union, which supported Mrs John throughout her battle, has also called for her reinstatement, pointing out that there is now a vacancy at both Coedffranc junior school and the adjoining infant school, which has the same governing body.

Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council refused to comment on the case pending an appeal against the tribunal's decision.

Anat Arkin

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