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A truly scandalous sacking

When teachers are unfairly sacked, the blame for inept disciplinary procedures invariably falls upon the governors. But as a recent case in Berkshire shows, though the responsibility may be the governing body's , headteachers and local authorities can also contribute to unjust decisions.

Two years ago,Cherryll Pepper, then in her 40s, was sacked as deputy head of Montem first school in Slough. She was accused of attempting to make the governors give her a pay rise bigger than she was entitled to during the 20-month period she was acting head.

An industrial tribunal which last December totally exonerated her has now ordered Berkshire County Council to pay compensation and costs totalling #163;16,879. Mrs Pepper's experience was described as the worst case of injustice against an employee in the 20 years' experience of one of the tribunal members.

The report by the Reading tribunal pinned much of the blame for this on the head, described as a "wholly unsatisfactory and discreditable witness" who "set in train a web of confusion which went unchecked because of the poor calibre of the governors". Berkshire County Council, should have spotted there was something wrong and acted.

But the tribunal also found the governors had allowed matters to get out of hand. They failed to make notes or read committee papers and had a "slap-dash and ill-disciplined approach" to their responsibilities. Only one, Leonard Cook, was praised as even-handed and experienced.

Mrs Pepper was found to be blameless. Her integrity "shone out". She had been the victim of a situation which had gone unchecked, created by a head who took umbrage at the lack of differential between her pay and that of her deputy.

The story began when the previous head went on long-term sick leave and Mrs Pepper, then the deputy head on point 4 of the pay scale, was asked to take over the role temporarily.

Her pay was raised to reflect her extra responsibilities and later raised again when the sick leave was further extended. She applied for the full-time post, but instead it went to Lyn Hurst, who came from a deputy headship in Surrey.

Meanwhile, a crucial meeting of the governing body's finance committee, though inquorate, decided, in Mrs Pepper's absence, to recommend that she should revert to point 7 on the pay scale when the new head started. It was at this meeting that Mrs Pepper was subsequently accused of trying to mislead governors into paying her more than she was due.

By this time the new head had started work, and , according to the tribunal, was incensed at the thought that the differential between her and her deputy was going to be relatively small.

The county council became involved and the governors asked the head to launch an investigation. Mrs Pepper was interviewed by the head and a council officer, and in February 1996 was told by the head that "following an investigation into the allegation that you misled the finance committee in order to obtain financial gain, I am suspending you on full pay" pending a disciplinary hearing.

That hearing decided to sack her on grounds of gross misconduct and a subsequent governors' appeal committee upheld the decision. Both hearings were criticised as unfair by the tribunal. Geoff Hawkins, Berkshire's education personnel director, "had an undue influence" on the first hearing. The second was described as "even more flawed".

No credence had been given to Mrs Pepper's unblemished character. The question of her salary would have had to go to a full meeting of the governors to be confirmed - which never took place - and there would have been no logic in her suggesting point 7 based, as was alleged, on her years of service.

Mrs Pepper is naturally relieved that she has been vindicated and says she bears no grudge against anyone involved. She accepts it is very unlikely she will return to Montem, and does not put much faith in the council's duty, ordered by the tribunal, to try to find her an alternativ e post. But she is very critical of the way her case was handled and wants an inquiry by the Department for Education and Employment. She blames poor advice from the local authority, and weak governorship.

"There's far too much power in the hands of lay people and the local education authority, " she says. "There's no watchdog to make sure things are done properly. I had an absolutely impeccable record, and I would have been a head by now if it hadn't been for all this."

Mrs Hurst says she was simply following the council's advice.

Geoff Hawkins told The TES: "I believe a reasonably fair procedure was followed. There was a properly convened panel of the governors in which the allegations were put. Mrs Pepper was able to respond to them and a decision was reached."

The council - due to be replaced by unitary authorities in April - has no power, Mr Hawkins says, to discipline the governors. And as it advised them and the school's head throughout the proceedings, it would be in no position now to advise them on where they went wrong.

Jo Mansell, deputy chair of the governing body at the time of the dismissal and now chair, is also unabashed. "We did what we thought was right. We took it very seriously and thought it out very carefully. We thought we made the correct decision with the evidence presented to us and I've not seen anything since to suggest otherwise. I was astonished by the industrial tribunal's findings."

Mrs Pepper was backed by her union, the National Association of Head Teachers, at the industrial tribunal - and so was Mrs Hurst. Both were union members and entitled to advice, a fairly common situation, according to the NAHT. It means it must advise both parties as best it can on whether they are following the correct procedures - and is restricted in commenting on the outcome.

In this case, the union points out, Mrs Hurst was primarily advised by Berkshire County Council, which also paid for her legal representation. And it was the governors who were responsible for the dismissal.

"There is no substitute for good quality training for governors in how to organise the governing body and its sub-committees and making sure minutes are taken properly.

"If the governors had been properly trained, it seems likely this dispute could have been settled at a much earlier stage."

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