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The unwelcome face of publicity

Nicholas Pyke on the Sarah Briggs affair

The headteacher of Queen Elizabeth's School in Mansfield did not consult her union, the Secondary Heads Association, before deciding to exclude 15-year-old Sarah Briggs, the girl who wrote to a local newspaper criticising staff absences.

Had she given the SHA headquarters a ring, Nicola Atkin might have thought again. Few actions could have been better guaranteed to garner unwelcome publicity at the start of the media's silly season.

This week the head's position grew more perilous. She will return from holiday to find that her staff have already written to a national teaching union to complain about poor management at the school.

Sarah Briggs, on the other hand, will be feeling more secure. Teaching unions and HM chief inspector Chris Woodhead have expressed surprise at her expulsion.

Sarah was one of four pupils who wrote to a local newspaper, the Mansfield CHAD, to criticise their school. They complained that Queen Elizabeth's has failed to address the staffing problems that were identified in a critical Office for Standards in Education report a year ago. The inspectors had found that spending on supply teachers was four times the national average and that "long-term absences and difficulties in appointing the right staff have seriously affected the quality of education".

Sarah Briggs told the paper that, despite the report, nothing had changed, and that her GCSE studies were suffering.

For its part, the school denied that staff absences were a problem, and accused Sarah Briggs of bringing Queen Elizabeth's into disrepute. When Sarah refused to apologise, she was expelled. The governors will be meeting to overturn or ratify the decision in two weeks' time.

According to Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, staff at Queen Elizabeth's had voiced concern well before the latest episode. They were worried, he said, that senior staff had been removed from teaching duties to produce a new timetable, at redundancies among ancillary staff and the threat of cuts in the teaching staff. They were also upset at the decision to spend Pounds 220,000 preparing the school for a visit by the Queen.

Among the teaching unions there appears to be a feeling that there have been mistakes on both sides. Gareth James, head of professional advice at the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "However much pupils are encouraged to challenge things, there are also appropriate routes to use. The students could have raised these issues without the kind of publicity that's attached to local newspapers. Whether, on the other hand, a school should go do down the route of suspension, I don't know."

The omens for schools attracting this sort of publicity are not good. Kenneth Clarke sent the inspectors into Culloden primary in east London after it was filmed in a fly-on-the-wall documentary, and the trouble caused by television cameras at the Ridings school in Halifax is well known. It is no surprise that education minister Stephen Byers has already stepped in to demand a report on Queen Elizabeth's.

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