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Trapped fingers 'cost my career'

A teacher has spent four years trying to clear his name after being sacked from a special school. Graeme Paton reports

An experienced teacher who was sacked for trapping a pupil's fingers in a door says his career is in ruins after spending four years attempting to clear his name.

John Whitehead was dismissed by Corley special school, Coventry, for gross misconduct even though police decided not to pursue their investigation into claims he deliberately injured the boy.

This week an employment tribunal ruled that the teacher, who had an unblemished 23-year work record, had been unfairly dismissed and said that the school's disciplinary procedures were deeply flawed.

Tribunal members criticised the huge delay in the school's investigation, its refusal to interview all witnesses and claims that the then headteacher put pressure on governors to sack Mr Whitehead.

It was also revealed that the teacher's first disciplinary hearing had to be abandoned after one of the governors fell asleep.

Critics this week said that the case highlighted the need for urgent action to tighten up rules governing schools' investigations of alleged abuse of pupils by teachers.

Mr Whitehead said: "Who is going to want to employ someone who has been out of work for four years with an assault allegation hanging over their head? Even supply agencies won't touch me. This whole thing has completely muddied my name."

The married father-of-two was key stage 4 manager at Corley school, which caters for children with moderate learning difficulties, when the incident happened. At an earlier tribunal hearing, it was revealed that trouble flared between pupils in March 2002.

The tribunal was told Mr Whitehead attempted to stop one teenager pushing into a room to confront a fellow pupil, but as a door closed it trapped the youngster's hand, breaking one finger and bruising others.

The teacher was suspended from his pound;35,000-a-year post and police were called. Although officers decided there was no case to answer, governors at the school ruled that Mr Whitehead had been reckless and, after an investigation taking more than two years, sacked him in July 2004.

The teacher, who has spent more than pound;20,000 attempting to clear his name, took the school and Coventry council to a tribunal in May and this week it delivered its verdict, exonerating him.

Its report highlighted a catalogue of errors, principally the "extensive delay" in the school's own investigation. The headteacher, who has since left the school, was criticised for "retaining information relating to an unproven allegation" and putting a statement to governors on Mr Whitehead's disciplinary panel which was "prejudicial".

Governors themselves were also criticised. As well as the sleeping governor the tribunal revealed their approach to hearing litigation was "flawed" and a teacher-governor had wrongly been allowed to sit on the appeal panel.

The tribunal will make a later judgement over costs, although Mr Whitehead said he was likely to be left heavily out of pocket. He has found part-time work as a cook and teaches occasionally at a special school and FE college, but said that his long-term career prospects were in ruins.

Gail Saunders, of the campaign group Falsely Accused Teachers and Carers, said: "As a result of a single unfounded allegation of cruelty towards a pupil, his career and reputation have been destroyed. This case clearly demonstrates how the investigative procedure which follows a complaint against a teacher is often conducted in a manner which fails to offer any protection whatsoever to the teacher against spurious allegations."

Coventry council and the school, which is now under the leadership of a new headteacher, declined to comment this week. However, at the tribunal hearing in Coventry earlier this year, the school defended its decision to dismiss the teacher and its lawyer, Jill Carter, insisted that "some force"

was used by Mr Whitehead to cause such injuries to the boy.

* graeme.paton@tes.co.uk

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