The events brought to light in a recent claim for unfair dismissal and sex discrimination from the former Assistant Director of Music at an independent school in London has served as a warning to other schools.
The background and allegations
Miss Nicholls had been employed by the school for 33 years. She was described as an inspirational and quite exceptional teacher who many students would remember fondly for the rest of their lives. However, reports also highlighted that she was also difficult to manage and was known to go to disproportionate and unusual lengths to get her way on matters. She had significant gravitas at the school and had come to be viewed as someone who was not to be crossed by either peers or managers.
In 2019 disciplinary proceedings were brought against Miss Nicholls. The allegations against her were that she had been giving private lessons to some of the school’s pupils at her home, that she had substituted her daughter to take a flute exam when another pupil had had to cancel, and that there were discrepancies relating to invoices. The disciplinary hearing resulted in Ms Nicholls being served with notice of her dismissal.
After learning of the decision to dismiss her, Miss Nicholls sought to sabotage the performances of various choirs due to sing at open day events by taking home a large amount of sheet music required for those performances. Having done this, she sent highly inappropriate messages to various pupils. In those messages she wrote “you know I care about you and we have a special bond” and “a big hug [to] you and the other special people; you’ll know who they are.., Miss Nicholls xx” and “I will not let the school destroy the relationship I have built up with you or others I feel close to.” The sending of these messages resulted in Miss Nicholls’ employment being immediately terminated without notice.
A claim for unfair dismissal and sex discrimination
Miss Nicholls brought a claim for unfair dismissal and sex discrimination. However, the employment tribunal rejected her claim, declaring her conduct to be “extremely serious” and that dismissal was a reasonable response.
The tribunal ruled that the emails Miss Nicholls sent to the pupils were “totally inappropriate” and “evidenced a blurring of boundaries that must exist between teachers and pupils.” In particular, the tribunal criticised Miss Nicholls for designating certain pupils as favourites and for putting kisses on emails to pupils.
Our key takeaways from this case
There are multiple lessons to be learnt from this case. Firstly, schools should ensure that staff are not allowed to rise to a status in which they hold leverage beyond their position in the school’s formal hierarchy. This means putting in place careful management of staff who are inclined to do things their way rather than the school’s way.
Secondly, when dismissing for misconduct, schools should consider whether it is sensible to allow a teacher to continue working at the school during their notice period or whether it would be prudent to make a payment in lieu of notice.
Finally, as part of their duty to safeguard pupils, schools should ensure that there is no blurring of the boundaries of what constitutes appropriate relationships between pupils and teachers. Teachers should not be allowed “favourites” or to communicate with pupils in overly affectionate terms. Any such behaviour should be challenged and, where relevant, followed up with disciplinary action.
How Moore Barlow can help
Safeguarding is serious, complex and it’s more than ever vital to get it right. If at all unsure, do seek advice, whether from a lawyer or a safeguarding specialist.