The Supreme Court has held that a head teacher (R) was under a contractual obligation to assist the school’s governing body in discharging its duty to safeguard its pupils by disclosing her close personal relationship with a convicted sex-offender (S), and her failure to notify the school governors of the relationship was sufficient reason for the school to dismiss her.

Factual background

R, had become involved with a man, S, in 1998. Although the relationship was not romantic (R claimed they were ‘good friends’), the relationship between R and S clearly went beyond a mere financial arrangement - they owned a house together (but did not live together), had a joint bank account and went on holiday together.

In February 2009, after R had applied for the role of head teacher at a primary school, the house she owned jointly with S was raided by the police and S was arrested for making indecent images of children. R did not inform the school of S’s arrest or her relationship with him, at any stage during the recruitment process and was duly appointed as head teacher in September 2009.

About five months after her appointment, S was convicted of making indecent images of children. S was subjected to a sexual offences prevention order, which forbade him from having unsupervised access to children under 18. Despite this, R did not notify the school of S’s conviction or her relationship with him.

The school subsequently found out about S’s conviction, and the close relationship R had with him, and dismissed R for gross misconduct. The school considered that R should have been aware of the need to notify them of the situation and that R’s failure to accept that she had acted wrongly meant dismissal was the only appropriate sanction.

Legal background

Following an unsuccessful internal appeal against her dismissal, R brought an unfair dismissal claim. The employment tribunal held that, although there was no express obligation in R’s contract which required her to disclose her relationship with S, it should have been obvious to R that she was obligated to do so. R’s dismissal was within the range of reasonable responses, but deficiencies in the appeal process rendered R’s dismissal technically unfair. However, the tribunal went on to hold that there was a 90% chance of R having been dismissed if a fair procedure had been followed but, in any event, R had 100% contributed to her own dismissal. R unsuccessfully appealed to the Employment Appeals Tribunal and the Court of Appeal.

Supreme Court decision

The Supreme Court unanimously dismissed R’s appeal. The Court held that R was under a contractual obligation to assist the school’s governing body in discharging its duty to safeguard the pupils. The question was therefore whether R’s relationship with S engaged the governing body’s safeguarding functions. Sex offenders can represent a danger to children not only directly, but also indirectly, by operating through those with whom the children associate. S clearly represented a danger to children and R’s relationship with him created a potential risk to the pupils; R held information about her pupils (including their whereabouts, their routines and their circumstances at home) and could authorise visitors to enter the school premises.

The employment tribunal had therefore been entitled to conclude that it was a reasonable response for the disciplinary panel to have concluded that R’s failure to disclose her relationship with S to the school governors, amounted to a breach of duty and justified her dismissal. Further, that R’s continuing refusal to accept that she had done anything wrong rendered it inappropriate for her to continue in her role as head teacher.