HEADTEACHERS have warned that removing members of the profession from their posts while they are being investigated risks jeopardising their careers by appearing to pre-judge them.
The School Leaders Scotland (SLS) union called for caution after it emerged that a head and deputy working in East Kilbride had been “redeployed” to back-room duties by education bosses following complaints from parents about their decision to allow a US creationist sect into classrooms at Kirktonholme Primary.
SLS general secretary Ken Cunningham stressed that while he could not comment on the specific case, it highlighted the dangers of taking staff out of school without clear justification.
He said: “If an issue has been raised, local authorities have to be seen to address it and they need to consider the seriousness and urgency of the circumstances of any case to decide whether they can carry out an investigation into someone while they are still in-post.
“Sometimes, that judgment can be wrong and it puts someone’s career into question.
“It’s a judgment call. Very often, by taking that action [to remove someone from post] in the public perception you have pre-judged the case.”
Employment law specialists warned that decisions on suspension or “quasi-suspension”, where staff are removed from their positions, were frequently made by companies and organisations without good cause.
Stephen Connolly, an associate specialising in employment law at Miller Samuel Solicitors, in Glasgow, said: “Often, employers have a knee-jerk reaction and just say, ‘We need to suspend someone’ without thinking about what the reason for that is.
“Generally, we would say that there are only two circumstances where an employer would need to do that. Firstly, if the wrongdoing established was at such a level that you could not have them remaining in place, for example a bank teller stealing money.
“The second situation is if there is a risk of damage to reputation, which I would say is the issue [being considered] here.”
However, Mr Connolly stressed that removing an employee from a job did not mean an investigation had been pre-determined.
South Lanarkshire Council announced late on Thursday that headteacher Alexandra MacKenzie and her deputy, Elizabeth Mockus, who job-share at the primary school, had been moved while it investigated why they allowed the Church of Christ to work as classroom assistants for eight years.
Parents only found out that the Alabama sect was at the school earlier this month when pupils brought home creationist books spelling out the cult’s view that evolution is a myth.
Members of the sect have already left the school after education bosses stepped in.
Politicians said removing the headteacher and the deputy was the right decision and had been welcomed by parents.
Graham Simpson, Conservative councillor for East Kilbride West, said: “Many kids in my ward go to the school and the feeling among parents is that the council has done the right thing. This is what had to happen.”
The Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA) union also supported the council’s action.
Alan McKenzie, acting general secretary at the SSTA, said: “It is obviously a concern [that two teachers have been removed from post] but on balance it is better that they are out of there because they could be subject to more censure from parents if they were still in post while the investigation is carried out. It is common practice to do this.”
The Educational Institute of Scotland, which represents 80 per cent of Scottish teachers, refused to comment on the case, which could lead to the teachers being sacked and struck off if they are found guilty of any serious wrongdoing.
South Lanarkshire Council defended its latest action yesterday. A spokesman said: “As far as we are concerned, the situation is being handled appropriately.”