'Head who didn't like union stopping him having free reign at Greater Manchester school took revenge on teacher'

A well respected senior teacher was unfairly sacked and discriminated against for 'trade union reasons', a tribunal has found.

Carmen Wood-Hope was employed at The Friars Primary School in Salford from 2014, having qualified three years earlier. She became a member of the school’s senior leadership team as the school’s Liaison and Cohesion lead, with responsibility for relations with parents and staff.

An employment tribunal held over ten days heard she was an excellent classroom teacher who had, in March 2017, been recommended for and received an additional pay award to reflect her ‘highly competent’ performance.

But after she became the NUT, later NEU, workplace representative for teaching staff members at the school, she ended up being dismissed.

At the tribunal, the teacher claimed that she had been discriminated against by the school. And, in its judgement a panel of three decided that she had been 'automatically unfairly dismissed for trade union reasons', after The Friars' headteacher, Michael Earnshaw, who held 'antipathy towards' her, had put in place a 'punitive' 'support plan'.

Concluding that Ms Wood-Hope had 'suffered detriment because of her trade union duties', the judgement said of headteacher Michael Earnshaw: "The respondents’ main purpose in carrying out such treatment was to prevent or deter the claimant from taking part in the activities of an independent trade union at an appropriate time and also to penalise her for so doing...

"Under cross-examination, Mr Earnshaw was unable to explain his actions. In the absence of any explanation, the Tribunal concluded on a balance of probabilities that Mr Earnshaw was intent on extracting revenge and that his animus to the claimant betrayed him."

Colleagues warned her to 'watch her back' with headteacher Earnshaw

The judgement found that the actions of the school's headteacher, Michael Earnshaw, were 'tainted by a personal animosity' towards Ms Wood-Hope, who had 'challenged' him as union rep, and that he did not like that the union was 'preventing him from exercising free reign'.

The tribunal's panel also concluded: "The claimant suffered unlawful disability discrimination: by the respondents’ unfavourable treatment because of something arising in consequence of disability which was not justified; and by the respondents’ failure to make reasonable adjustments."

The tribunal considered evidence from Ms Wood-Hope and the employer, Salford City Council. She claimed that Michael Earnshaw, who became the headteacher at The Friars in September 2018, had treated her unfairly by criticising her teaching ability - and sought to punish her for representing members of the National Education Union on the staff.

Carmen Wood-Hope. An employment tribunal found she was unfairly dismissed by Friars Primary School in Salford
Carmen Wood-Hope. An employment tribunal found she was unfairly dismissed by Friars Primary School in Salford

The tribunal heard that soon after Mr Earnshaw's appointment, union members at the school raised 'concerns' with Ms Wood-Hope about changes to 'classroom observation protocol' he proposed that went against an existing, negotiated agreement.

Ms Wood-Hope said that she sought to ensure that her colleagues were properly treated and that leadership decisions were fair and that school policies were followed correctly.

But the day after she passed on members' concerns to him at a senior leadership team meeting, Mr Earnshaw gave her an 'informal warning' - one which, the tribunal found, 'was in response to the claimant carrying out her trade union role'.

The day after the informal warning, the tribunal heard, Ms Wood-Hope suffered a panic attack, and the NEU wrote to Mr Earnshaw regarding the changes he wanted to bring in, warning that his 'latest actions are outside of the protocol and could be seen as an attempt to deter trade union activity, whilst reminding Mr Earnshaw that such is unlawful'. However, the tribunal found, he 'remained unwilling to entertain any form of compromise', resulting in a 'ballot for strike action'.

Weeks later, Ms Wood-Hope supported a teaching assistant union member in a dispute over school milk duties, and 'colleagues began to warn the claimant to “watch your back” in relation to Mr Earnshaw'.

'Claimant was sent to A&E'

Then, in March 2019, the claimant complained to the headteacher about a breach of confidentiality from within the Senior Leadership Team, the tribunal found.

Following that, Mr Earnshaw claimed colleagues had raised several issues about her which would have to be investigated', but 'would not tell her what those issues were, nor when the conduct complained of was said to have occurred.'

"In effect, Mr Earnshaw turned the matter into a formal investigation into the claimant’s conduct. As a result, the claimant developed a panic attack and was sent to A&E," the judgement records.

Following that, Ms Wood-Hope spent 48 days off work sick with 'work-related stress', and was told by Mr Earnshaw that when she returned she would not be returning to teach her Year 3 class, but instead be doing cover teaching work.

Then, November 2019, the month she returned, she was placed on a support plan, something 'which the Tribunal understood to be a form of performance management, for which the Tribunal could see no justification'.

Following that, she was signed off sick with work-related stress again, and never returned to the school. By 2020 she had been sacked with a letter of dismissal, to which an appeal was turned down.

When she sought work through a recruitment agency in April 2021 she was rejected following a reference in which Mr Earnshaw wrote that he considered her 'not at all suitable' for teaching.

The Tribunal found that the support plan was 'a punitive measure'. It found that she was likely to have time off work 'due to the stress and anxiety caused by the imposition of the support plan and Mr Earnshaw’s attitude towards it and towards her'.

The Tribunal 'was unable to conclude that the support plan and the respondent’s actions were appropriate or reasonably necessary, let alone proportionate', it further said, 'the continued insistence on the support plan caused the claimant substantial disadvantage. Mr Earnshaw himself admitted as much in evidence'.

While Ms Wood-Hope’s health deteriorated to the point that she was unable to work and needed medical support, she lodged an internal grievance against the behaviour by the headteacher and went through a series of internal hearings to explain her case to the school's governing body panels.

The Tribunal found that the governors assigned to adjudicate her claims had failed to investigate the complaints thoroughly and independently and were influenced and swayed by Earnshaw to dismiss her claims of ill treatment and unfair scrutiny.

'In response to challenges, Mr Earnshaw adopted an approach of threatening the claimant with unsubstantiated allegations'

Commenting on Mr Earnshaw the Tribunal judgement says: “The fact was that Mr Earnshaw did not want the claimant back (to work) and so he effectively blocked any consideration of removing the support plan and he engaged personnel to conduct the capability and grievance procedures who would follow his lead."

It adds: "Mr Earnshaw’s intransigence over the support plan led to an impasse. His actions, largely unexplained under cross-examination, were tainted by a personal animosity towards the claimant which the Tribunal considered to have arisen because the claimant had challenged him in her capacity as the trade union representative of the staff.

"It had been right for the claimant to do so on behalf of concerned trade union members at the school, as Mr Earnshaw sought to adopt a dictatorial attitude and ride roughshod over collectively negotiated and long-standing policies and procedures. He did not like the fact that the recognised trade union, the NEU, was preventing him from exercising free reign and that the union required him to negotiate with staff and follow protocol.

"In response to challenges, Mr Earnshaw adopted an approach of threatening the claimant with unsubstantiated allegations of misconduct or performance, with disciplinary action or a support plan in a manner which he later repeated with other individual staff connected to the claimant."

Ms Wood-Hope's local Salford National Education Union representative, Judith Elderkin, who supported Carmen Wood-Hope, throughout this process said: “We will not hesitate to support our members suffering unfair detriment. Carmen Wood- Hope is an excellent school representative, who has paid a very heavy price for supporting her colleagues. She has lost her job and career, her income, her house and has suffered severe ill health.

"We are expecting that an appropriate award is made to our member at the remedy hearing in October."

The Manchester Evening News understands that Ms Wood-Hope will be seeking a settlement in the region of £250,000.

A spokesperson at Salford City Council said: “The employment tribunal found in favour of the claimant. We will now consider the learning from the case.”

A council statement added: "We have been in touch with Michael Earnshaw, the Head at Friars and he doesn’t wish to comment."