School head leaves after two years of turmoil

Sunday 16th January 2022 7:00 am
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JOHN Kyrle High School and Sixth Form has been rocked over the last two years by the challenges of Covid, including months of virtual learning, and the fall-out from lost tribunal and legal cases.

The employment tribunal judgement in November 2020 ruling that former teacher Jo Lucas had been unfairly dismissed highlighted a "significant animus" towards her by the school - particularly from headteacher Nigel Griffiths, who unexpectedly left the school last week - "inextricably linked" to her activities as a representative for the National Union of Teachers.

The panel found that Mrs Lucas had been targeted in a skewed disciplinary process aimed at getting rid of her in March 2017.

The school claimed she was dismissed for gross misconduct following poor exam results, after a reasonable, independent investigation and a fair appeals process which she "failed to engage" with, and claimed it had been provided with misleading grade predictions and faked data.

But the tribunal agreed she had been unfairly dismissed, while the school had failed to make reasonable adjustments for her disability and had treated her unfairly because of her trade union activities.

It said her deteriorating health as a result of arthritis - which the tribunal found was downplayed by the school - provided mitigation, and the 70-page ruling drew "adverse inferences" from Mr Griffiths’ failure to attend any of the 10-day hearing in Birmingham.

"The Tribunal concluded on the basis of all of the evidence we heard that the main purpose for proceeding down a misconduct process - with allegations of wilful, deliberate, falsifying conduct, and allegations of breach of trust - instead of a capability process which would consider the medical issues in more detail, was because of the significant animus that the respondent, and in particular Mr Griffiths, had towards the claimant," said the judgement.

"We concluded that this animus was inextricably linked to the claimant’s trade union activities. It was this factor, we concluded, which triggered the disciplinary process instead of a capability process, and it was this which led inevitably to the allegations of gross misconduct.

"While the school was right to investigate given its "strong concerns" about the drama results - which led to complaints from parents and some students not to go into sixth form - the way it went about it was not reasonable," it said.

"The Tribunal concluded that the manner of this investigation, in which the claimant’s health was downplayed and deliberate misconduct issues maximised, was not an appropriate or a reasonably necessary means of achieving its legitimate aim.

"We considered that the means chosen were not even-handed as they were designed to maximise the prospect of the claimant’s dismissal rather than being a measured and evidence-based response to the issue."

The tribunal also heard that on July 4, 2016 - 24 hours before six John Kyrle staff joined in a national strike - Mr Griffiths had asked for Mrs Lucas’ "Bradford Factor" score - which is used to assess absence.

The panel considered "the most likely explanation" was connected to the strike and Mrs Lucas’ role in it.

On July 15, in an e-mail to the chair of governors, Mr Griffiths’ personal assistant claimed Mrs Lucas had raised questions on the issue of voting integrity.

His response was: "FIGJAM (**** Me, I’m Good, Just Ask Me). And her file."

The tribunal concluded he was "banking" it to use against Mrs Lucas.

Denise Strutt, then John Kyrle trustees chair, said after the ruling that although there had been failings, they were "not the sign of a systemic problem".

The Gazette also revealed around the same time that the school was facing a £187,000 legal bill for a failed attempt to stop Forest of Dean school Dene Magna from opening its own sixth form.

John Kyrle said at the time it "had little choice" but to pursue the case, to try and "protect jobs, preserve the breadth of our offer and support our sixth form to thrive for generations to come."

But Herefordshire National Education Union district secretary Paul Deneen said he was "appalled" by the cost and the attempt to try and prevent a school in another county opening its own sixth form.

"Why was the decision made to go for a High Court Judicial Review against another school in the first place?" he said.

"In reality, anyone could have told JKHS that the likelihood of success was nil."

An "external review of governance" initiated by the school ’Members’, who oversee the board of trustees, was announced in December 2020.

While its full findings have not been revealed, despite calls, it has since come to light that independent reviewer Denis Barry said in March that the school at that point had conducted no board inquiry, open discussion or post-mortem into the "damaging legal judgements".

Last May, a month after the exit of school trustees chair Denise Strutt, it was revealed that an action plan had been issued by the Department for Education to be fully implemented by the end of the 2021/22 academic year, proposing measures designed to ensure the "foundations of effective governance" are "securely established".

A month later, the appointments of 12 school ’directors’ were terminated, followed by another four in August.

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