When Joanne Lucas started a new job as head of drama at the secondary school her son had attended, she could not have been more thrilled.
“I was excited and optimistic about what lay ahead,” she says. “The school was within walking distance of my home, and teaching drama is such a wonderful job – it’s a subject many kids really enjoy, and you get to know the children really well.”
But 18 months later, Lucas found herself locked in a fight with the school, John Kyrle High school in Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire. It culminated on 4 November in a ruling from an employment tribunal that, her lawyers say, highlights the increasingly unchecked powers of academies and free schools. Lucas’s dismissal was due to “[an] animus … inextricably linked to the claimant’s trade union activities”, the tribunal ruled.
The ruling, says her solicitor, reveals how some school heads and managers believe they can behave however they like. “Jo Lucas was effectively targeted by a head whose email trail revealed he had been out to get her because she was the NUT rep,” her solicitor, Colin Henderson, of Lawyers for Teachers, explains. “Some schools today are run like small businesses, by managers who overstep their role and behave without care and consideration towards their staff.” This, he believes, has led to a culture where union membership is frowned on.
Union membership had always been associated with family pride for Lucas. “My dad was father of the chapel in a print union, my grandmother was part of a union that went on strike for equal pay in a munitions factory during the war, and my grandfather was an active member of a dockers’ union. I’ve always known unions aren’t about making trouble – what they’re about is looking after the weakest links in any industry. And in today’s schools they offer huge benefits to management: they can unlock funding and training for teachers at a time when resources are stretched.”
In addition, she could see areas in which John Kyrle, a 1400-pupil secondary that has had academy status for 10 years, did not meet statutory requirements. “What I did as union rep was put rights into place that were being overlooked – entitlements to professional free time, for example.”
Events came to a head in July 2016, in the run-up to the national teachers’ strike. “Teachers told me they were being asked if they’d be striking, which is illegal,” says Lucas. She raised concerns at the school and with the union after only six staff members came out on strike, when she had been expecting about 20.
In September of that year, Lucas was summoned to a disciplinary meeting after the drama exam results were disappointing. “I’d been unwell and the management knew that, but they made out it was a failure on my part and tried to get me to leave,” she says.
Her case rested on a series of emails that showed the head of John Kyrle, Nigel Griffiths, “was losing patience with the claimant’s union activities, and … this was causing a significant deterioration in Mr Griffiths’ view of the claimant”, in the words of the tribunal judgment. At one point, Griffiths sent an email to his PA about voting integrity in the strike ballot, in which he used the acronym “FIGJAM” (‘Fuck I’m good, just ask me’). The tribunal concluded the email was evidence Griffiths was banking on an unsubstantiated allegation of a lack of integrity, raised by Lucas against the head’s PA, as an issue to use against her.
Lucas says it had been clear to her for a long time that Griffiths wanted to dismiss her over her union work, and was looking for an excuse. “In the end they came up with a charge of gross misconduct that would mean I could never work in a school again,” she says. “I was utterly distraught. My whole world was under threat, 30 years of teaching were disappearing down the chute. Some people said to me, there are boxes of evidence against you – the easiest thing would be to simply walk away. But I knew it was a stitch-up. The school expected I’d give up and go quietly. I was determined to fight on.”
During the tribunal hearing Lucas’s barrister, Andrew Faux, said it was “rare to uncover so much deception” in a case. Although Lucas’s illness had been a problem, he said the school had not used the correct path of performance management, and a safeguarding issue raised against Lucas was “seized on”, despite it being “very minor”.
Henderson says it was clear from the email trail that, from July 2016, there was a plan in place to get rid of Lucas. “She’d had health difficulties, the drama results were disappointing, and instead of putting together a plan to gently help her to regain her capability after a difficult phase, they conspired against her. Mr Griffiths went looking for excuses to sack her.”
The judgment has wider implications, he says, because of the way academies and free schools are run. “Some school managers can lose the plot and fail to realise that they cannot pursue their objectives without care and consideration for the standards that all teachers work to,” he says.
In the past, explains Henderson, a school’s HR function would have been run by the local authority; in an academy such as John Kyrle, HR responsibilities are devolved to a private company, in this case Hoople Ltd. “The evidence presented to the tribunal was that the HR company was effectively asked how the school could get rid of Jo. The company never asked why the school wanted to get rid of her.” That was not their role, he says, in a way that in the past it would have been the role of the HR team at the local authority.
“In this case, no one questioned what was going on,” he says – a failure of governance that he says is enabled by the way academies are run.
Griffiths is still headteacher at John Kyrle High, and parents have received a letter from Denise Strutt, chair of governors, saying that though there had been failings, these were “not the sign of a systemic problem”.
Strutt said the school had taken advice from external lawyers and HR specialists and that “our insurers felt our case was strong”. She continued: “I want to reassure parents that, despite the failings in this individual case, our staff are happy at the school,” and promised “positive action to ensure this situation does not happen again”.
Damages for Lucas will be decided at a later date. Meanwhile, she is doing maternity leave cover at another secondary school two days a week, teaching art. She is enjoying it, but has no idea where her next full-time job will come from, or how easy it will be to find. The tribunal, she says, has left her feeling “numb … it’s like coming down after performing at a big concert. Of course, I’m happy to have won, but the fallout is still very much there in my life.”