06 August 2011

Former Kennington headteacher speaks out at Lambeth's hostility after cancer.

Former Kennington headteacher speaks out at Lambeth's hostility after cancer.

Lambeth Council treated a headteacher unfairly  after he returned to work following life-saving cancer treatment, and adopted an approach which `bordered callousness’(1) an employment tribunal has ruled.
James Walker, who won his employment tribunal case against Lambeth Council on 2 August, had worked for the South London authority for 18 years as a headteacher and deputy. He was suspended from his job at Henry Fawcett Primary school in November 2008, shortly after his return from sick leave, on allegations of bullying and harassment made by a former assistant headteacher, Penny Bermingham.
In its written judgement released this week, the Employment Tribunal found Lambeth Council had instigated protracted and biased investigations against the headteacher in order to `paint him in the most damaging light’ (2) and had cleared his office, destroyed his files, insisted on wholly draconian suspension conditions and failed to adopt impartiality.
The Tribunal said: `The investigation process amounted to a fishing exercise which focused on obtaining the most damaging information about the Claimant.’(3) `The Tribunal was struck by the level of the Respondent’s hostility towards the Claimant’. (4)
In evidence presented to the court, the Tribunal heard that two teachers  had told the council’s whistle-blowing department shortly after the suspension, that  Mrs Bermingham was `fabricating her claims’ (5), but this evidence was not acted upon by Phyllis Dunipace, the Executive Director for Children Services at the time.
Mr Walker, a father of two from Kennington, who represented himself at the 18-day hearing said:
‘If Lambeth’s whistle-blowing team had listened and followed the proper procedures, I could have been spared months of misery and isolation and the school could have avoided unnecessary and detrimental upheaval. An impartial consideration of the whistle-blowing evidence would have led a reasonable employer to the conclusion now reached by the Tribunal’.
In its judgement of Mrs Bermingham the Tribunal stated they did not find Mrs Bermingham, ` a credible witness and were unable to accept her accounts of the Claimant’s conduct towards her’.
The judgement continued: ` There was a body of evidence before the Tribunal which showed that she had failed to engage in any constructive sense with the Claimant to the point of being unprofessional.... we accepted his [the Claimant’s] evidence that he had not been aggressive to Penny Bermingham in the respects alleged by her or at all’. (6)
In witness evidence, the Tribunal heard however that Mrs Bermingham had not only made accusations against the headteacher but had also caused upset to other colleagues during her acting headship of the school. Jo Redgate, a former teacher at the school, said:
`I witnessed Penny to be cruel during James’s absence, humiliating staff and attempting to make them feel insignificant and worthless’. (7)
After a suspension of 22 months, Mr Walker brought the case against his former employer on grounds of unfair constructive dismissal and discrimination.  He told the Tribunal this included:
·         Attempting to present him as running the school when he was on sick leave and in hospital
·         Questioning his disability status under the Disability Discrimination Act
·         Ignoring requests for help in dealing with Mrs Bermingham’s behaviour
·         Imposing unlawful restrictions on his freedom of movement and association
·         Allowing the clearance and destruction of files from his office
·         Failing to specify allegations against him
·         Denying him statutory rights to lodge grievances and have these investigated
·         Allowing officers named in grievances to determine how the grievances should be dealt with
·         Ignoring the impact of his cancer on the school and his own performance
·         Threatening further disciplinary action if did not resign the day after his first CT scan
Mr Walker said: `I have paid a high price emotionally, professionally and financially over the last two years when I should have been recovering from my cancer.  The actions of Lambeth Council have also been hugely damaging to the school and to its community.  Experienced and talent teachers have left, parents have lost confidence and needy children have been neglected.  It is a disgrace that Lambeth has used public funds to push me out of my job and I hope the actions of those responsible for this waste will be thoroughly investigated’.  
Mr Walker, who finally resigned in September 2010 alleging constructive dismissal, had enjoyed a successful career with Lambeth prior to his cancer.  In 2005 he was asked to run one of the borough’s first Children’s Centres to be attached to a primary school and he regularly represented the council at conferences and assisted with the management of a Pupil Referral Unit.  As an inner city school with high levels of deprivation, Mr Walker’s success in raising achievement at Henry Fawcett had previously been praised by the executive director of Children and Young People’s Services, Phyllis Dunipace and former secretary of state, David Milliband. 
However, the court heard that by February 2009 Ms Dunipace wanted to remove Mr Walker from his post and had commissioned a strategy to bring about an end to his employment with the council.(8)
Mr Walker said: `The tactics used by Lambeth felt like they were designed to make me give up and walk away but I was determined to fight this unjust set of actions after I had given up the best years of my working life to Lambeth, even if the only way I could afford to do this was to represent myself’.
On 26 February 2009 the council took action against the school’s governing body when it issued a Section 60 notice against the school. The high calibre governing body which included a planning inspector, civil servant, marketing manager and former pupil Will Straw (son of Labour MP Jack Straw), was disbanded on 24 March 2009.  In evidence supplied to the court a witness appearing for the council, Mr Parr described the governors as `a clueless bunch of people’. (9) 
For more information or an interview contact Becca Walker beccabry@btinternet.com
Notes to editors:
1.       The written judgement on the Walker V Lambeth case (No’s 2302617/09 and 2347101/2010L) paragraph 76.  The judgement was issued on 2/8/11.  The case was heard at the Employment Tribunal Court (London South) 101 London Road, West Croydon, Surrey
2.       Written judgement on Walker V Lambeth case Paragraph 231
3.       Written judgement on Walker V Lambeth case Paragraph 82
4.       Written judgement on Walker V Lambeth case Paragraph 90
5.       Email from Mohamed Khan, chief internal auditor at Lambeth Council to Phyllis Dunipace, executive director of Children and Young People’s Services (CYPS) on 23 December 2008. Paragraph 72
6.       Written judgement on Walker V Lambeth case Paragraph 55
7.       Written judgement on Walker V Lambeth case Paragraph 56
8.       A report written by consultant, Tom Walker in February 2009 outlining a strategy for removing James Walker from his post.
9.       John Parr – In evidence given to Lambeth investigators.
10.   Henry Fawcett Primary School (Bowling Green Lane, Kennington SE11 5BZ Tel: 020-7735-2764) is situated in a deprived social housing estate in the North of the borough of Lambeth.  The school had an ethnically diverse population, with 22 different languages spoken and a high proportion of children receiving free school meals (55% in 2007).  In 2007, Mr Walker’s last full academic year, the Key Stage 2 results were 68% for English, 68% for Maths and 81% for Science.  Ofsted inspections at the school in 2001 and 2006 described Mr Walker’s leadership and management as good. 
11.   Mr Walker, 55 was admitted into St Thomas’s Hospital on 20 February 2008 as an emergency patient. On 28 February he underwent major abdominal surgery and in March 2008 he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.  From 14 April 2008 to 23 June he was treated with chemotherapy. He returned to work on 1 September 2008.
12.   Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995/2005, everyone with cancer is classed as disabled and is protected from the moment their condition starts to affect them. The DDA also covers a worker who is in remission or is completely cured even though they no longer appear to be disabled. (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1995/50/contents).
13.   Mrs Bermingham was promoted by Mr Walker to the role of assistant headteacher in September 2007. During his sick leave she was appointed as acting headteacher at Henry Fawcett by Cathy Twist (assistant director Children and Young People’s Services).  She is now a teacher at neighbouring, Ashmole Primary School in Oval. 
14.   During the period of sick leave Mrs Bermingham’s management of Henry Fawcett was overseen by the assistant director for Children and Young People’s Services at Lambeth Council, Cathy Twist.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Can Lambeth Council sink any lower? How the hell are these bullying scumbags like Penny Bermingham and Matt Britt still employed in teaching CHILDREN in Lambeth. Shocking

Anonymous said...

There is a lot of bullying at Lambeth council. It's like working in the wild west. If you complain you are branded a trouble maker unless you are a management favourite. HR just do whatever the management say, even if it is rubbish. Sorry I can't identify myself as I was forced to sign a gagging clause.