Head teacher fairly dismissed for failing to disclose relationship with sex offender

The Supreme Court has ruled that it was reasonable for a school disciplinary panel to dismiss a head teacher because she had failed to disclose her friendship with a man convicted of making indecent images of children.

R had been a head teacher since 2009. From 1998 she had been in a relationship with S. The relationship was not a romantic one but a financial one. They had bought a house together as an investment and gone on holiday together. In 2010, S was convicted of making indecent images of children and was made subject to a sexual offences prevention order, which forbade him from having unsupervised access to children under 18. R did not disclose S’s conviction to the school.

When the school subsequently became aware of R’s relationship with S and his conviction, it summarily dismissed her for gross misconduct. The school considered that S’s failure to disclose her relationship with S showed a lack of understanding by her, both of the concerns of the governors and the potential risk posed to the children in her care. The school stated that, if R had accepted her error, it might have considered an alternative sanction to dismissal, particularly in light of her unblemished disciplinary record. Following an unsuccessful internal appeal she brought proceedings in the employment tribunal

The employment tribunal and the Employment Appeal Tribunal both found that the decision to dismiss was within a “band of reasonable responses” and therefore substantively fair.

R further appealed to the Court of Appeal which held, by a majority, that the employment tribunal had reached the correct decision. Lady Justice Black took the view that R’s association with S did pose a risk to the children and that R should have realised that she had a duty to inform the school of it. She further considered it relevant that the disciplinary rules applicable to R stated that a failure to report any matter which it was a duty to report could give rise to action by the school. 

The Supreme Court dismissed R’s appeal unanimously, noting that she was under a contractual obligation to assist the school’s governing body in discharging its duty to safeguard the pupils. The question was whether R’s relationship with S engaged the governing body’s safeguarding functions. The Supreme Court noted that Parliament has recognised in the 2006 Act and the 2009 Regulations that offenders can represent a danger to children not only directly, but also indirectly, by operating through those with whom the children associate. As head teacher, R was likely to know important information about her pupils, including their whereabouts, their routines and their circumstances at home. She was also likely to be able to authorise visitors to enter the school premises. S’s relationship with R therefore created a potential risk to the children at the school, which required the assessment of the governors.

In these circumstances, the employment tribunal was entitled to conclude that it was reasonable for the disciplinary panel to have concluded that R’s non-disclosure of her relationship with S not only amounted to a breach of her contractual duty but also merited her dismissal. R’s continuing refusal to accept that she had been in breach of her duty suggested a lack of insight which, it was reasonable to conclude, rendered it inappropriate for her to continue to run the school.

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