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A death threat, vanishing evidence, and the flawed probes that shattered the lives of two school heads

By Lindsay Fergus

Published 26/09/2012

Serious doubts have been raised about the findings of separate inspection reports which led to the removal of two head teachers — including one who subsequently received a death threat.

The Belfast Telegraph can reveal the experienced principals were ousted from their respective schools by a heavily flawed investigation process by the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI).

One of the heads, Dr Annabel Scott, received a death threat after problems were raised at the troubled Crumlin Integrated College.

In a different case, Patricia McGovern, principal of St Bronagh’s Primary School in Rostrevor, has been battling for two years to clear her name after problems were identified at the school during an inspection. Both women were deemed “unsatisfactory” by the inspection process.

In Mrs McGovern’s case, the Northern Ireland Ombudsman took the unprecedented step of ordering a complete withdrawal of an inspection report which was particularly critical of her.

Meanwhile, Dr Scott’s case was investigated by the Information Commissioner which rapped ETI for breaching Data Protection principles.

Overall, a Belfast Telegraph investigation has found:

  • The process by which the headmistresses were judged was flawed.
  • Trade unions inappropriately discussed inspection findings with inspectors.
  • Evidence in both cases was destroyed, including notes on why the principals were judged to be failing.
  • ETI released a damning inspection report on Crumlin Integrated College weeks early after pressure by the North Eastern Education and Library Board.
  • The Ombudsman probe into the St Bronagh’s case forced ETI to change its process to retain all inspection notes for seven years and review its complaints procedure. Now the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has called for a review of the process after accusing ETI of subjecting principals to a “kangaroo court”.

NAHT, which represents 750 school leaders here, said: “It would appear from experience over recent years that inspection teams listen and simply accept what they hear from staff and parents without any investigation. NAHT is of the view that this practice is contrary to natural justice.”

In its charter, ETI describes itself as a “highly regarded and influential body” that “values and maintains its impartiality and independence” while treating “confidential issues in an appropriate way”.

Correspondence seen by the Belfast Telegraph shows that a trade union official questioned the then head of ETI about decisions made in relation to Mrs McGovern in March 2009. The union represented teachers — not the principal — in St Bronagh’s.

The trade unionist also asked how ETI was going to handle the June 2010 follow-up inspection given “poor relationships between principal and teachers”.

So concerned was SDLP MP Dr Alasdair McDonnell about the breach of confidence that he wrote to the Education Minister in March 2011.

“At this stage the Inspectorate had not found Mrs McGovern unsatisfactory, yet the planned follow-up inspection (FUI) appears to be majoring on the areas discussed with them,” he wrote.

“If principals in our schools are to have confidence in a fair inspection of FUIs from ETI, without being unduly influenced by teachers’ unions, then this particular case needs to be reviewed.” Mrs McGovern was deemed unsatisfactory by inspectors in the follow-up June 2010 inspection.

She subsequently challenged the findings and made a complaint to the Ombudsman, who found that all contemporaneous inspection documentation had been destroyed by ETI.

Ombudsman Tom Frawley said: “I considered this practice unfair to any person who might be criticised by the report as it effectively denied such an individual the right of natural justice to question and explore the detail of the matter which gave rise to the criticism.”

As a result ETI was forced to withdraw the inspection report.

ETI’s charter also states it will “show concern for accuracy and reliance on evidence-based evaluation” and “be committed to ensuring that queries are answered promptly within a defined timescale”.

Yet the Information Commissioner had also raised concerns about the inspection body in relation to Dr Scott’s case.

This included concerns that information requested under the Data Protection Act was not provided to Dr Scott within the mandatory timeframe, and documentation had been destroyed including lesson observation notes, notes from discussions with the principal, senior management team, heads of departments and governors.

“I have advised DENI that the commissioner’s office is concerned that the retention policy in place at the time was inappropriate,” said the Information Commissioner.

“If Dr Scott had been suspended on the basis that her work for the college is unsatisfactory that is clearly a serious matter that could have substantial implications for Dr Scott professionally and others.”

An ETI spokesman said: “The Ombudsman is neither authorised nor required to question the ETI’s evaluation of St Bronagh’s. The Ombudsman recommended the withdrawal of the report on the basis that ETI could not fully investigate the complaint as the contemporaneous notes made during the inspection were no longer available.

“The schedule of disposal has been amended and all information from an inspection is now retained for seven years.”

He added: “The ETI absolutely refutes the suggestion that there was a breach of confidentiality in this or any other case.”

Case study: Annabel Scott

A decision was made to remove Dr Annabel Scott before the North Eastern Education and Library Board had even seen a negative inspection report on Crumlin Integrated College.

On foot of a January 2010 inspection, the school was placed — and remains — in formal intervention. Of the 106 questionnaires which were issued to parents, just 32 were returned.

Inspectors noted the school had poor working relationships, a lack of mutual support and low morale.

Both the school’s principal, Dr Scott, and vice-principal, Philip Smyth, were placed in an ‘unsatisfactory process’ after their leadership was criticised.

ETI correspondence seen by the Belfast Telegraph revealed that, five working days after the inspection, NEELB did not want Dr Scott to attend a post-inspection meeting as ETI claimed it “would advantage the principal in giving her opportunity to present her case to board of governors”.

The board of governors had expressed “their strong support for the principal”, according to the inspection report.

But further correspondence on February 26 from NEELB to ETI shows a U-turn by the board of governors who “after detailed consideration, decided to follow the course of action we discussed”.

On February 26, a letter from ETI was sent to the Education Department, advising that Dr Scott was to be suspended.

MLA Danny Kinahan wrote to Gordon Topping, NEELB chief executive, in March 2010, expressing his deep reservations concerning the whole procedure and asking for an investigation into the affair.

Dr Scott returned to her school on June 6 this year following a two-year suspension. Her return was greeted by parent protests and an alleged death threat.

An NEELB spokesman said the findings were a matter for ETI.

Case study: Patricia McGovern

When inspectors carried out their first inspection of St Bronagh’s in Rostrevor there were ongoing problems caused by a merger.

It was created by an amalgamation of the Convent of Mercy Girls’, which Patricia McGovern was principal of, and St Mary’s Boys.

To add to any problems caused by this, teachers at St Bronagh’s were engaged in industrial action.

“There has been very limited progress in the school’s development over the past two-and-a-half years,” the March 2009 report said.

“The governors reported that arrangements for the amalgamation were inadequate. The poor start was compounded by a lack of strategic leadership, staff’s unwillingness to assume individual and collective responsibility for the school and the deteriorating working relationships between the principal and staff.”

ETI claimed a significant number of parents raised concerns about the school, yet according to the report just 45% of parents replied to an anonymous questionnaire.

But the report, while critical of the school’s leadership, also outlined shortcomings in teaching.

These included: “Teachers missed opportunities to build upon children’s ideas, the quality of teaching ranged from unsatisfactory to good with the majority being satisfactory, in a very small number of classes the teachers are beginning to implement assessment for learning strategies effectively.”

The school was placed in a school improvement programme, known as formal intervention, in March 2010. Mrs McGovern was later found to be unsatisfactory. She is still principal but is not in work at present. She has challenged the findings.

St Bronagh’s exited formal intervention in September 2011 after a June 2011 inspection.

A process whose very integrity is in question

By Lindsay Fergus

In today’s climate a principal’s job is an unenviable one. With so much bureaucracy, scrutiny, reduced finances and teacher redundancies it’s definitely a vocation.

Principals have to challenge underperforming teachers for the sake of their pupils, decide which jobs to cull to balance the books and do all this under the public glare.

There can be no doubt that principals who have a responsibility for the educational welfare of our children have to be held to account, particularly failing ones.

But when there is evidence of flaws in the process then that opens up questions about its integrity.

If Dr Annabel Scott and Patricia McGovern challenged the findings in court — as the Ombudsman has no power in this area — it would be unlikely the evidence against them would pass the judicial test. Yet reputations continue to this day to be destroyed by a process described by one union representing head teachers as a “kangaroo court”.

NAHT is not on its own when it comes to concerns about the Education and Training Inspectorate, with both INTO and UTU boycotting inspections until recently.

Both Dr Scott and Mrs McGovern have been found wanting in some areas of their performance as principals, but then so has the process by which they were judged.

Belfast Telegraph

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