A very sorry tale

The Court of Appeal has confirmed that a local education authority was negligent in allowing a “dysfunctional form of governance” to continue at one of its maintained primary schools and has upheld an award of nearly £400,000 in personal injury damages to Erica Connor, the head teacher at the eye of the storm.

The wider interest of what the Court of Appeal described as a “very sorry tale” derives from the interaction between the council’s duty of care as Mrs Connor’s employer and its duties under the School Standards and Framework Act, as well as the Race Relations Act.

A dysfunctional governing body

Mrs Connor was the head teacher of a multicultural Surrey school from 1998 until 2005, when she stopped work because of severe depression. From 2003 two new members of the governing body began to cause her difficulties. The source of the tension was their desire to introduce an increased role for Islam in the school, since the majority of the pupils were Muslim. One of them made complaints of racism and Islamophobia and, following his removal from the governing body, circulated a petition against Mrs Connor, which was described as "a highly offensive document, itself racist" by the trial judge.

Mrs Connor complained that she received little if any support from the Director of Education and the Director of Schools and that when it was plain that there had been a serious breakdown in the school’s governance the council should have exercised its statutory powers to sort this out. Instead it vacillated, leading to a serious breakdown in her health. When it did act to replace the governors with an interim executive board it was too late to save her health.

Public and private law duties

On appeal the council argued that the trial judge had confused the council’s private law duties as an employer with its public law duties as a local education authority. The Court of Appeal disagreed. It said that where a public body already owes a duty of care, it must use is public law powers to help it fulfil that duty, provided that acting in that way is consistent with its wider public law obligations. Since the council clearly had grounds to intervene at a much earlier stage, it followed that it was in breach of its duty of care to Mrs Connor and the trial judge had been correct to award her substantial damages.

Mrs Connor had also complained about the commission of an inquiry to investigate allegations of racism in the petition, even though a review conducted a few months earlier had given the school a clean bill of health on that front. The council used its duty under the Race Relations Act to promote racial equality as its justification for commissioning the enquiry. The Court of Appeal was less critical of the council here, with two of the three judges thinking that the council was right to set up enquiry, despite the additional pressure this put on the head teacher, but wrong to use it is an excuse for doing nothing about the school’s governance when there was plainly an urgent need for intervention.

Conclusions

  • Failure to make legitimate use of public law powers to support employees may expose public sector employers to negligence claims.  
  • The duty of care to employees does not override public law obligations.
  • Local education authorities should avoid “vacillation and appeasement” when tackling dysfunctional governing bodies.