Cuckoo Hall Academies Trust (CHAT) ‘wrongfully’ and ‘unfairly dismissed’ former IT manager, Mrs D Evans, an employment tribunal found.
Mrs Evans was accused of gross misconduct but the tribunal ruled this was not the case.
The tribunal noted that at the time of the alleged misconduct there was ‘some form of power struggle amongst the board of trustees, creating factions.’ There was, however, no evidence to support the accusation that Mrs Evans was a member of any faction.
The judge didn’t know what issues contributed to this strife. However, it was ‘evident that the issues arising amongst the board of trustees had overflowed into the wider organisation’. The judge said this background environment ‘may have been a material factor’.
The tribunal may not have known exact details of the ‘background environment’ but the judgement (dated 20 February 2017 but not published on GovUK website until 2 May) reveals a troubled atmosphere. The executive head, Patricia Sowter, her husband Phillip Sowter and the head of Cuckoo Hall Academy, Sharon Ahmet, had been suspended in November 2014 amid allegations of misconduct. The Education Funding Agency (EFA) became involved and issued CHAT with a Financial Notice to Improve in February 2015.
In the meantime, the suspended individuals were reinstated in January 2015.
The tribunal heard a CHAT board meeting was held on 8 January 2015 for Phillip Sowter ‘to answer to the allegations that had been made against him.’ The tribunal had no knowledge of these allegations but acknowledged one aspect could be his requesting access to the email account of company secretary Graham Davis. Mrs Evans had complied having been told the request came from Patricia Sowter.
Mrs Evans was called to attend the board meeting. She was told she needn’t prepare because ‘the board just wanted to clarify a few questions’. Mrs Evans was reluctant but warned ‘she had either to appear before the board or face disciplinary action.’ The board denied this was ‘an instruction’ but the tribunal said:
‘…she [Mrs Evans] felt compelled to attend and felt pressured in the meeting, where she was aggressively questioned by Mr Sowter.’
The board denied Mr Sowter’s questioning was ‘aggressive’ but acknowledged he ‘was robust and challenging of the claimant [Mrs Evans]’
The tribunal published Mrs Evans’ account written shortly afterwards:
“The experience was very intimidating and intense and an interrogation and I felt like it was unfair to discuss the allegation in front of PS [Phillip Sowter] without giving me prior notice and to allow him to defend himself against me. There was also a feeling of being in minority and overwhelmed by 4 people asking me questions in a fire line manner’.
The tribunal heard that Mrs Evans ‘began questioning herself and the policies she had been following’. She ‘repeatedly sought guidance from her manager, Mr Hesketh, which was not forthcoming until 21 April 2015.’ The tribunal noted that when she sought guidance Mr Hesketh responded ‘it was everyone for themselves’. Quite what that remark meant is unclear.
The tribunal also reported Mrs Evans’ evidence that ‘IT expenditure was stopped...unfriendly emails were being received by staff and a lot of pressure was being put on the IT department, and that there were conflicting requests from senior management.’ CHAT did not challenge this evidence.
The Tribunal found in favour of Mrs Evans. She had not ‘committed an act of gross misconduct.’ Remedy was ‘reserved to be determined at a hearing’ unless CHAT and Mrs Evans resolved the question between themselves. It is not know whether this has happened.