Friday, 29 February 2008

Horror Stories

“School disciplinary processes leave teachers ruined, destroyed and damaged beyond repair” argues E. A. Francis, in a series in which TES readers share their experiences of education. Source: TES

Experienced, successful and skilled educationalists are leaving the profession ruined, destroyed and damaged beyond repair.

Confident personalities have been reduced to rubble by the grievance and disciplinary procedures in schools.

Some head teachers are getting away with condoning this travesty through the perpetuation of corruption or subterfuge.

I am talking of that all too frequent occurrence happening in schools around the country every single day. That fateful day when you walk into your place of work only to be summoned by the head teacher and told a colleague has made accusations about you.

Your world stands still. You feel sick, confused, hurt; and then you feel a fear beyond your experience and understanding.

At no time are you allowed to suggest these allegations are malicious; that would violate the accuser’s rights and interfere with the school’s policy to investigate.

You can not get angry; that makes you look aggressive. You can not say anything you have experienced; for example, isolation, being ignored, gossiped about, set up and not spoken to for weeks, months, years.

Oh no ! That would give the investigator ammunition to suggest you are not showing any remorse. You are guilty as charged. Condemned, judged and hanged – before you even get to your first grievance meeting.

Oh, and don’t, whatever you do, speak to another colleague about it. Not even if you are in tears or unable to concentrate on your job or that you have been found throwing up in the toilets. You will be told you are ‘canvassing’ for support which could result in a suspension.

An unofficial action group may form, those types who simply need to get involved, the one, two or three people who you have had a professional disagreement with in the past or maybe even the one or two who internally applied for your job and didn’t get it. They need to be heard, they make it their mission to be heard. Their evidence will help seal your fate because they have all been called as witnesses ! Your reports of this group are considered hearsay. Their reports of you are a vital part of a fact finding investigation.

Then that day arrives, after months of grievance and disciplinary interviews, the hearing, the decision. You receive a Verbal Warning if you are lucky, Written Warning – well not bad, let’s face facts, you have been told for months now you could be dismissed, so any Warning is quite a relief.

It was just such a shame no one believed you. It is even more sorrowful that tissues of convenient lies were believed instead. It is a tragedy you have lost all your confidence, faith, self-esteem and professional self-belief. For these things are to be dealt with by you and you alone, quietly and gratefully. Your life has been torn apart, your heart has been ripped out and every single thing you held dear has been dismantled, analysed and spat upon. You now have a stress related illness.

You need time away to recover. So now you have an official Warning and a sick record with a mental health diagnosis. Well that is fine, you didn’t get the sack. Just because you have lost the ability to go out, enjoy your hobbies, have peaceful evenings with your family, meet with friends, have restful holidays, sleep the entire night. None of that matters, as you didn’t get sacked !

Sometimes, untrained and unskilled members of a senior teaching staff act as a prosecutor would in a criminal court case. Even the police are not allowed to interview suspected criminals for more than a certain amount of hours at a time but schools can - and some do. So this untrained member of SMT who has probably never studied Employment Law, is unlikely to have read the Human Rights Act and who has possibly only just read the school’s grievance procedure is now responsible for your future !

Something has to change and it has to change quickly. I think it an outrage that so many good educationalists have had their careers ruined as a result of malicious allegations made against them by colleagues.

The system whereby a head teacher is able to act as judge and jury is ridiculous, unjust and only seems to favour what is ‘best’ for the school, which means no scandal, no press involvement and certainly no union clashes. Head teachers are seldom trained in law but disciplinary hearings are run by heads and senior managers as though they were QCs for the day.

Thousands of pounds of public money would be saved if this whole system were reviewed. These cases can result in a drawing up of a Compromise Agreement which has been known to involve ‘hush’ money. They are called ‘gagging contracts’ by those in the know.

Why can’t schools recognise the need for strategic management designed to avoid or at least preempt potential cases of staff against staff ? Ad hoc mediators should be available without the waiting lists. In-house counselling services should be available to everyone and the protection of vulnerable staff should be high on every head teacher’s agenda.

Grievance and disciplinary investigators should not be members of the involved school’s Senior Management Team. Be wary about who is taken on. Power in the wrong hands can only result in disaster.

Some cases are so trivial that dismissal may be threatened in order to encourage a resignation but if none is forthcoming, they are taken all the way and broken by the process. If they don’t leave, their Warning can be used against them for up to a year, like the Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, so just add on a few more ‘misdemeanors’ and with a bit of luck this newly acquired sickness record could be very handy towards conjuring up a capability case.

Current policy must be reviewed, evaluated and changed. The ‘accused’ should be afforded the same rights and support as the ‘aggrieved’. Witnesses interviewed during the grievance and disciplinary procedures are called by the ‘aggrieved’ and cannot be called in defence of the ‘accused’.

How can that be a balanced and just system ? It should be policy to assign an HR support worker for the ‘accused’. Independently run disciplinary hearings must be a forum for outing truth, irrespective of how inconvenient that truth is.

If this does not happen, experienced and respected staff will continue to be forced to leave the profession in droves because this is happening too often and towards too many.

“Established and experienced teachers are being forced out of their chosen vocation, through what they have described as malicious and fabricated allegations against them by their colleagues.”
E. A. Francis explains how you can protect yourself against such harmful claims. Source: TES

Here is a check list to help you to protect yourself:
  1. Have you got every single accusation in writing ? If not, the procedure must not continue.

  2. Do you still have to work with your accuser ? If so, why is this being allowed ?

  3. Contact your union. If they are unhelpful, call an Employment Solicitor. Ensure you are talking to a solicitor who specialises in Employment Law. You can telephone around and ask the receptionists in Law Firms. They may even be able to recommend a local EL solicitor, should they not specialise themselves.

    Do not be afraid of doing this. If you know these allegations are unfounded, do something immediately. Do not wait around to get more and more ill. A solicitor has the potential and the understanding to reassure you within your first free-of-charge half an hour.

  4. If your union is helpful, still call a solicitor for the same reasons. Unions have their limitations, Employment Law lawyers do not. It is a possibility that your union representative wants a quick conclusion. This usually means a quiet resignation. The first meeting with a solicitor is free of charge. Should you appoint a solicitor, you will receive an estimation of costs. Most will be around £500-£800, providing things do not get complicated. It will be the best £500 you have ever spent.

  5. It will doubtless get to the point of organising a Compromise Agreement and your solicitor will negotiate a lump sum of ‘hush’ money way over the amount of their bill. The most valuable input they will have is to ensure every stage of the process is being carried out lawfully. They are also able to link your situation with breaches in Acts of Parliament or the school’s own policy document.

  6. Do you have a copy of the school’s grievance and disciplinary procedure ? If not, do not proceed until you do. When you have this procedure, ensure it is being followed to the letter throughout the entire process because it probably will not be. Show this to your solicitor.

  7. Do not discuss this with any member of staff, no matter how friendly you are with them. Moral cowardice kicks in because people will be frightened of their own careers and will not want to be seen supporting you. This is not wrong, it is human nature. If they are brave and support you, they may be ‘warned off’ doing so. You will feel isolated and alone, but if you know this is going to happen, you are better prepared for it.

  8. Do you have someone to attend the first meeting with you ? You can take either your union representative or a colleague. Some people may not even be in a union, but do not worry. Join one straight away; they will not help you, but you can at least copy all of your letters to them. The union may have a hardship fund to help you with legal costs, even if you have only just joined.

  9. Request the form and fill it in. Be careful who you select, should you need a colleague to attend the meetings. You may have to ask a number of them, as they could say no. What you must bear in mind is that they now know what you are being put through, so they must understand that confidentiality is paramount. This need not be leaked at all. There will be witnesses and they may be biased against you, so if it becomes common knowledge around the school, ensure it is not because of you. If you have not found a companion, do not attend any interview until you do.

  10. Do not be afraid to refuse to answer a question put to you; neither should you worry about being unable to answer a question. You may be asked about something you cannot recall. Fine, say so. If you are unsure of a question, make notes to your companion. If you are still unsure, do not answer the question.

  11. Take your own minutes, preferably taken by your companion, and make notes yourself. Pass these on, with the minutes from HR or SMT, to your union and solicitor. Trust me, they will differ. Subtle changes in emphasis could mean the difference between you sounding frustrated and you sounding aggressive. Benign words or questions you have asked may be conveniently altered. For example, you could ask who supported the ‘aggrieved’ within the school. The investigators could ask you who suspect. You offer a few names as thoughts. The people may then be told you claimed they were supportive and how do they feel about that ? Emphasis changed, another person aggrieved. Do not accept the minutes until you agree with them. Then and only then, sign them.

  12. You will receive a copy of the grievance report and its findings. Ensure you agree with the accounts of your meetings. If you consider any part of the first report to be biased against you, allow your solicitor to write a letter to the school and refuse to continue in the process until you feel you are being reported on fairly and without bias.

  13. If a hearing is decided upon, ensure the reasons for this hearing are set in writing and are just. If you haven’t already, visit your doctor, because by this time you will not be able to eat, sleep or function normally, and listen to their advice.

  14. If you are suspended prior to the hearing, do not accept that you are unable to collect your property. Remember, this is staff against staff. If you have not committed an act of abuse towards anyone then why are you still there in the first place ? If you are suspended, contact your solicitor immediately and question the legalities of the suspension. If you are advised by your doctor to remain away from work at any point during the procedure, take that advice. Listen to your doctor. Do not struggle in because you fear the worst if you do not attend work. The worst has happened anyway.

  15. Do not resign before the hearing; you may be advised by SMT to do just that. Don’t, unless you are negotiating a Compromise Agreement you are happy with, via your solicitor.

  16. Do not be fobbed off with a promise of payment to the end of the term if you resign immediately. You may be tempted by the promise of an excellent reference and pay to the end of term. Do not accept it.

  17. If you do not agree with the outcome of the hearing, appeal against the decision. You should have fourteen days in which to do this. Talk to your solicitor. If the appeal is upheld, revisit your doctor and seek their advice.

  18. If you honestly believe you have been set up in any way, shape or form, submit a grievance against your school. Your solicitor will help you do this. Send it to the person responsible for all school governors within the LEA. If you send it to the school, the head teacher will doubtless open it.

  19. Sit back, take your doctor’s advice and leave everything up to your solicitor. By this time, their solicitor will be negotiating with yours. Wait for an outcome and trust your solicitor to get a fair result.

  20. If your solicitor suggests a tribunal, listen to them. Do not roll over and play dead. The more people act in this way, the less confident SMTs will be about using this system to get shot of you.
Stop worrying about future employers, your reputation, what others are thinking and, more importantly, stop any feelings of guilt. Concentrate on getting emotionally strong again and regaining your health. There is life after that school.

In order to continue raising awareness, people have to share accounts. Once the problems are widely recognised, current policy has more chance of being evaluated and positive change can be affected carefully but definitely.

The most important factor is to not get so ill that you lose your ability and your will to fight against what you believe is corruption. If you search your heart and still find what has happened to you to be unfounded in any shape or form, stand up and refuse to accept this miscarriage of justice. You will leave the school, but how you leave will determine your recovery.

It will mean the difference between you saying, “They broke me and I lost my job due to having to resign and then my career went.” and you saying “They tried to break me and the outcome of the Compromise Agreement was negotiated on my terms. I then had a break and got another job.”