Teacher who ‘shoved’ student was not unfairly dismissed, despite withheld witness statements

EAT finds it was reasonable for disciplinary panel not to consider accounts from those who did not see incident

A teacher who allegedly “grabbed” a pupil and “shoved” him against the wall was not unfairly dismissed, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has ruled, despite several witness statements being withheld from the disciplinary panel which decided on his dismissal.

The EAT found it was appropriate not to inform Mr J Hargreaves that a number of witnesses said they had not seen the incident, where he was also alleged to have pushed two forefingers against the pupil’s throat. The fact they had not seen the confrontation did not mean it had not happened, it added. 

Hargreaves had been an art and design teacher at Manchester Grammar School since September 2005. In March 2016, a pupil reported an alleged incident to his form tutor, who said he had been “visibly upset”. 

The school’s safeguarding lead, Mr Smith, initially investigated the allegation. He was advised by Ms O’Hagan, the local authority’s designated officer. An interview with a student witness corroborated the pupil’s account of events. 

The school’s proctor, Dr Burch, said Hargreaves came to him after the alleged incident. Burch explained Hargreaves had seemed “very agitated” and told him the pupil had made a rugby tackle on another boy. 

Burch said he had spoken to the “subdued” and “upset” pupil, who admitted pushing and shoving in the corridor, “seeming almost too relieved when he was not disciplined.”  

Meanwhile, O’Hagan had passed on information about the incident to the Police Public Protection Investigation Unit, where it was handled by DS McKee. 

McKee interviewed Hargreaves, who admitted he had grabbed the pupil by his rucksack to stop him rugby tackling another pupil. He denied holding his fingers at the boy’s throat, believing the pupils were telling “malicious lies”. McKee told the school’s governing board the police would be taking no further action and that it was up to them to determine whether further action was needed. 

Hargreaves was invited to an investigation meeting and the subsequent report found “either there has been a malicious allegation of physical abuse or he had acted in a way that could be viewed as serious professional misconduct.” Prior to the allegation, Hargreaves had not been the subject of any disciplinary action. 

A disciplinary panel concluded the allegations against Hargreaves were proven and he was notified of his dismissal by a letter on 17 June 2016. Hargreaves told the tribunal his “hard-won career was potentially now in ruins” after the decision. 

Hargreaves appealed the dismissal on 29 June 2016, but it was upheld on 6 July. 

The initial employment tribunal (ET), sitting in Manchester, found the investigation was not biased against Hargreaves. It concluded the governing body’s response was within the band of reasonable responses. 

Hargreaves claimed the ET had erred in its response to the investigation, highlighting the “significance” of witnesses withheld from the disciplinary board and himself. He said the fact they saw nothing untoward was corroboration of his account.

In her ruling, EAT Judge Eady reported: “It found that it was within the reasonable range to decide not to inform [Hargreaves] and the disciplinary panel about interviews with those who had seen nothing. It did not follow that, because those individuals had seen nothing, nothing had happened.”

It was found more likely than not that the teacher had “engaged in unwarranted and unreasonable physical conduct.”

Judge Eady acknowledged the “devastating effect on the claimant” but said: “[Hargreaves] says that, on his account, the interaction was innocuous. That, however, is not the case… No one else saw the incident in the way described by [Hargreaves]. On the other hand, a number of witnesses did see an interaction that corroborated the account given by the pupil.” The case was dismissed. 

“In this case, much debate centred around which witnesses were interviewed for the investigation stage,” said Emma Hamnett, partner at Clarke Willmott. “The ET and EAT agreed that the employer had acted reasonably in selecting its witnesses and ultimately that did lead to Mr Hargreaves’ dismissal, which was found to be lawful.”

Dr John McMullen, visiting professor of law at Durham University, said the case highlighted the “heightened duty” which falls on the employer when investigating potentially career damaging allegations. 

Croner associate director Paul Holcroft agreed it was especially vital a thorough investigation was undertaken before a high-stakes dismissal took place, adding that what is and is not presented to a disciplinary hearing must be carefully considered. 

Holcroft said: “The investigating officer is required to collect all relevant information on the disciplinary matter, including any information which goes against, or supports, the allegations. When determining what information is to be included within an investigation report, the investigating officer should consider what information is relevant, and whether it is reasonable to include this.”