Blackburn teacher case highlights ‘multitude of disciplinary flaws’

Out-Law News | 28 Sep 2021 | 9:00 am |

The widely reported ‘pupil in the cupboard’ case is a lesson for employers conducting disciplinary investigations  
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  • Transcript

    A Blackburn teacher has won an employment tribunal claim for wrongful and unfair dismissal after a pupil lied about being locked in a cupboard as punishment for unruly behaviour in a case that made headlines in both the local and national press. Multiple procedural mistakes in the disciplinary procedure serve as a reminder to employers of the importance of conducting a reasonable investigation and not over relying on the evidence of one or two individuals, pupils at the school. 

    The case is Basit v Education Partnership Trust and has been reported by Personnel Today. The facts briefly. In January 2020 Mr Basit was teaching maths to a Year 9 class at Pleckgate High School in Liverpool when he asked ‘pupil A’ who was disengaged and appeared to be dozing, to stand at the back of the classroom. There was a large cupboard at the back and Basit made a comment to pupil A which resulted in pupil A getting into the cupboard. The boy had hundreds of behaviour complaints against him and had a reputation for playing the ‘class clown’, 

    Subsequently, pupil A and two others made a complaint to the headteacher. Pupil B said Basit had forced A into the cupboard and in the course of the investigation statements were taken separately from each pupil. The three statements alleged a number of potentially unprofessional incidents including Basit throwing a book during a lesson and other similar incidents.  

    Basit is an experienced teacher and said he didn’t think he had done anything wrong. In essence, he said his approach was effective in dealing with unruly behaviour and what happened needed to be seen in its proper context. An investigation was carried out by the Trust as part of the disciplinary process the outcome of which was a finding that Basit was in breach of the school’s behaviour policy and teachers’ standards. He was subsequently dismissed for gross misconduct with immediate effect. An appeal was convened by the Trust  during the first Covid-19 lockdown which relied on written representations and the decision to dismiss was upheld. Basit went on to bring tribunal claims for unfair and wrongful dismissal. 

    The tribunal found there were ‘significant faults at each stage of the disciplinary procedure’, failings which the tribunal set out in some detail across 25 paragraphs of the judgment. Mistakes included: 

    - An over reliance on the statements of a few pupils
    - A misjudgement of the management style of the teacher which led the school to jump to the wrong conclusions about the way he behaved
    - A failure to give sufficient weight to the teacher’s experience and ability to deal with the difficult pupil; and
    - Conducting an appeal without even seeing the teacher remotely. That approach led to the panel being too heavily influenced by what they perceived as a lack of remorse even though Basit had apologised repeatedly and expressed his regret.  

    The in-house HR advisor comes in for heavy criticism. At paragraph 225 the judgement reads: ‘On a number of occasions Ms McGonagle overstepped her remit as HR advisor and ventured into aspects of the actual investigation and disciplinary decision making, thereby exerting improper influence. This included introducing the allegation of harm to pupil A’s emotional welfare, refusing to seek disclosure of the disciplinary records, not changing the final version of the disciplinary letter regarding closing the cupboard door when Mr Georgy had expressed doubts about this finding. The HR function should avoid straying into areas of culpability and it was unreasonable in this instance to do so.’ The disciplinary panel and the appeal panel also came in for heavy criticism – they were clearly lacking in the necessary training to conduct a fair process. 

    Which brings us on to training for managers in conducting investigations and disciplinary hearings, including appeals. That is covered in detail in our e-learning modules which are part of our Managing Essentials series. So what’s on offer? The e-learning is interactive, so you have exercises designed to test understanding with opportunities to make notes and then test knowledge through a series of questions which will then give you a score at the end. That score is part of an actual record of who has taken the course and whether they passed the test and it is potentially quite important because, for example, you could find yourself in tribunal running the reasonable steps defence in a discrimination case and evidence of training courses offered to staff, and taken up, could go a long way establishing that defence. 

    It’s worth saying, this e-learning is really quite different from the typical, rather dull, compliance-driven models out there on the market. So, you actually get to watch an investigation meeting taking place and see for yourself both good and bad practice played out. We have used professional actors in role plays of actual cases we have come across in practice, scripts we have written reflecting what we think should and should not happen. 

    As to cost, we don’t operate the typical subscription model that you see with the vast majority of e-learning courses on the market which base the cost on the number of users. Instead the modules come with a licence for an unlimited number of users which means hundreds of people can all be trained for a one-off purchase cost, with the option to repeat the training as many times as you like without any further cost. Each of the three Management Essentials modules is priced at £3,500, or if you buy all three modules together, £9,000 and most clients who have purchased so far have opted for that discounted package. 

    If you would like to have a closer look at any of the modules you can, we are offering a free demonstration so please do get in touch if this might be something you want to consider for your staff. Contact details are on the screen for you.

    LINKS
    - Link to case report: Basit v Education Partnership Trust (ET)