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Victory over Islamic lessons

A teacher who felt unable to teach REto Muslim students has won her case for unfair dismissal. Tara Fawcett reports

A teacher who was forced to teach Islam to a group of Muslim students was unfairly dismissed from her post, an employment tribunal has ruled.

Penny Parsons, 46, brought a case of unfair dismissal against Josiah Mason college, Birmingham, for constructive dismissal after resigning due to stress.

She must wait to see how much compensation she will receive.

Mrs Parsons had taught healthcare and nursing studies at Josiah Mason, a specialist sixth-form college, since 1993. In 2002 she was told that she would have to teach AS-level religious studies.

The tribunal, in Birmingham, heard how the college "bullied" Mrs Parsons into teaching the subject without giving her adequate time or resources.

Mrs Parsons has a degree in religious studies but stopped teaching the subject 20 years ago because she did not want to teach it from an Islamic perspective.

In a written statement, David Hewitt, chairman of the tribunal said: "The applicant made a conscious decision in 1982 for strong personal reasons to abandon teaching RE." She worked for the NHS for 10 years as a registered general nurse and health visitor before joining the college.

The tribunal heard that an expert from a neighbouring college who was employed to help her prepare for the course, suggested that as the majority of the students were Muslim it would be sensible to teach the subject from an Islamic viewpoint.

Mr Hewitt added: "The suggestion of teaching the subject in this manner further increased the applicant's anxiety.

"Her background is Christianity and ethically she was unhappy at the prospect of teaching from the Islamic perspective."

Josiah Mason college has maintained that asking Mrs Parsons to teach the subject was a reasonable request and that other teachers at the college, who did not specialise in the subject, had delivered the lesson.

But Mr Hewitt said: "The tribunal is unanimously of the view that requiring the applicant to teach a subject that she was not employed to teach and did not want to was a fundamental breach [of her contract].

"The dismissal of the applicant, an individual of some nine years' impeccable teaching service with the respondents, was not within the band of reasonable responses available to the employer and dismissal was unfair.

After the decision, Mrs Parsons said that she was delighted with the result which was long overdue.

"I'm really happy with the decision and believe justice has finally been done. I was asked to teach religious studies from an Islamic viewpoint and I don't think that I would have been able to do that. I would have been letting the students down if I had stuck with teaching the course.

"My background is Christianity, that is what I was brought up in and that is what I specialised in for my degree.

"I did not feel that I was in a position to teach Islam, especially at that level, as it involves exploring intimate beliefs. There were lots of Muslims in the class, many of whom would know more than me about the subject.

"It was suggested to me that I send the students off to the library to research the subject for themselves. If I had done that I would have been undermining the course and the students."

Mrs Parsons, who is now working as a health visitor, hopes that the tribunal's decision will help other teachers asked to take subjects they were not employed to teach.

She said: "I think there may be other teachers who have been put in the same situation, but did not have the strength to stick up for themselves or the money to take their employers to an employment tribunal."

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