Who should be the judge?

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
Five years ago a governors' panel cleared a teacher of child abuse but LEA pposition denied him his right to be reinstated until now. Karen Thornton talks to the chair of the panel

Martina Longworth had just qualified as a solicitor when she chaired a disciplinary panel investigating allegations that an English teacher had "inappropriately touched" a 15-year-old.

Anthony McNally had already been suspended for more than a year from his post at Woodhey comprehensive in Ramsbottom, Bury, where he had taught since 1979.

The governor disciplinary panel met in June 1996. It consisted of Mrs Longworth, then a local councillor and former teacher; Keith Baby, commercial director of a management consultancy and former employee relations manager for the Co-operative Bank; and Peter Richardson, a company director who had previously worked for the Inland Revenue. Both men had children at the school, and one had experience of industrial tribunals.

The panel spent two days considering evidence, presented by the education authority, and a report from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. None of the children was called. The three exonerated Mr McNally, saying no misconduct had been proved.

The education authority intervened, arguing that a representative of the chief education officer should have been present during the governors' discussions, and involved the Secretary of State for Education.

Mr McNally remained suspended and the case eventually made it to the Court of Appeal. Last week three top judges quashed David Blunkett's direction that the governors rehear the case - and reinstated the June 1996 decision. Mr McNally has now won the right to seek reinstatement.

Mrs Longworth, 45, and now working for Platt Halpern solicitors in Oldham, lost contact with the school after losing her council seat. She never met Mr McNally. But she is pleased that the panel's original deliberations were upheld by the Court of Appeal.

In fact, the governors received significant praise. Lord Justice Kennedy, in the 38-page judgment, said the scool's governing body had "selected an impressive and highly-qualified panel". He also highlighted the panel's "powerful" response to the local education authority's claims that they had failed to take full account of hearsay evidence.

"The panel considered the standard of proof. From the experience of members of the panel, including a practising solicitor and a member of industrial tribunals, we were well aware of the standard of proof and the admissibility of hearsay.

"The local authority fails to grasp that hearsay and anonymous evidence inevitably carry less weight than direct evidence. They chose not to bring the direct evidence... The education authority assumed that we were required to accept evidence rather than judge evidence, and therein lies their error."

Mrs Longworth, a mother-of-four, says now: "We were well aware of our responsibilities to everybody - the children, the school, and as employers.

"We reached our decision that there was no misconduct, and we expected that to be it. It came as a surprise to find Mr McNally was still suspended and the education authority had gone to the Secretary of State. The authority was fairly determined he would not teach again."

Five years on, she acknowledges that asking lay people to play what amounts to a quasi-judicial role in disciplinary matters can be problematic, and says her school was lucky to get a good cross-section of people on the panel.

But she added: "It probably is useful to have governors (dealing with disciplinary matters) if you have parents and people who know the school. It's a useful role for governors, with appropriate safeguards in place. In this case, Ithink it's fairly provident that governors were involved."

And her advice to other governors who find themselves on disciplinary panels?

"They have to hold onto their own integrity and independence, get as many of the facts as they can in front of them before they make the decision, and ask for advice when and if they need it. I think the LEA just expected us to rubber-stamp one of their recommendations."

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