Teacher unfairly dismissed after joking that misbehaving pupil should get into ‘haunted’ cupboard, tribunal rules

Judge says school failed to meet need for ‘thorough and careful’ investigation after managers failed to take into account student’s 300 previous reports of poor behaviour

A maths teacher was unfairly and wrongfully dismissed after a pupil alleged he forced him to get in a cupboard as a punishment, a tribunal has ruled.

The Liverpool employment tribunal ruled that Mr A Mohammad Basit, who had worked for Pleckgate High School in Blackburn since 2012 with a clean record and a self-professed “love for his job”, was not at fault because the school did not view as “crucial evidence” the full behaviour record of the student who made the allegations against him.

It found that the student, known as pupil A, had 364 entries on his behaviour record for abusing staff and pupils and disrupting classes, and had previously also told another teacher that he would “make something up about her” after she told him off for bad behaviour.

The tribunal ruled that for a well-thought of teacher of good character with a good disciplinary record, dismissal was an “extremely harsh sanction” and not within the band of reasonable responses. 

On 10 January 2020, Basit was teaching pupil A’s class in the last lesson of the day. During the class, Basit noticed pupil A was not engaged and, using his normal management techniques, asked him to stand at the back of the classroom by the cupboard.

Basit, whose teaching style was to use “light humour” in his lessons, told the tribunal he “joked” that pupil A should get in the cupboard, which he did for a “short time”.

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Unbeknown to Basit, after the class pupil A and two other students who had also been disciplined during the same lesson went to the head teacher, Mark Cocker, to complain that Basit had allegedly forced pupil A in the cupboard. Cocker took their statements – which the tribunal said had “inconsistencies and similarities” – and commenced an investigation the same day. 

On 13 January, while taking form time, Basit was approached by deputy head Rob Hamilton about the cupboard incident and was asked to make a statement.

The tribunal found that Basit didn’t know about the allegations against him, nor was he told how seriously the school was treating it, so he made a “quick, handwritten statement” that was “brief and rushed” because he was trying to complete it before his first lesson.

The statement said that Basit asked pupil A to go into the cupboard “as a joke” and didn’t think he would actually go in, but he did. Basit said he “entertained it but took him out as it was clear he wasn’t going to leave himself”. He added that he had a “running gag” that the cupboard was haunted.

However, after writing the statement, Basit was not allowed to go to class. Instead, he was told to wait in the staffroom for over an hour before meeting Cocker and HR operations manager Ms McGonagle, who suspended him on full pay pending an investigation.

The same day, 13 pupils out of the 17 who were in the class when the incident occured gave statements about the lesson to deputy head and safeguarding officer Aishling McGinty, which the tribunal noted were “inconsistent”.

Basit attended an investigatory interview on 17 January with McGonagle, where he again emphasised that it was a joke. He added that pupil A was laughing and remarked something like “it’s actually quite cosy in there” as he left the cupboard.

Assistant head teacher Ms Robinson wrote up the investigation notes, in which she remarked that pupil A was 14 years old and 5’7” tall, so it would have taken “time and effort” for Basit to get him into the cupboard. But, she concluded that corroborating statements meant in the “balance of probabilities” the incident was likely to have happened.

Basit attended a disciplinary hearing on 14 February, along with McGonagle and head of HR Caroline Howarth and chaired by school governor and disciplinary officer Jonathan Georgy.

During this meeting, Basit pointed out general shortcomings with the investigation that made it unfair, including the acceptance of pupils’ inconsistent accounts versus his consistent one; his suspicion of collusion because all the boys were friends; and the pupils’ “appalling” behaviour records. The tribunal said that “at no stage” of the disciplinary procedure were their behaviour records obtained.

The investigation also referred to a previous allegation made in 2018 that Basit had used inappropriate language, which it concluded showed a “pattern of behaviour”. However, the tribunal noted that this allegation was never investigated and did not result in any sanctions.

The tribunal also said that during the meeting, McGonagle “overstepped her remit as HR advisor” and exerted improper influence by suggesting that putting pupil A in the cupboard would have damaged his emotional welfare – one of several times the tribunal said McGonagle had overstepped in this way.

The tribunal said that the HR function “should avoid straying into areas of culpability and it was unreasonable in this instance to do so”.

Basit was dismissed for gross misconduct on 5 March. He appealed and again asked for the pupils’ behaviour records to be considered, but the appeal was not upheld.

Having acquired the behaviour records of pupil A and three other pupils in the class, including the two that had joined pupil A in making the initial allegations against Basit, the tribunal found that they had 1,705 entries between them for dishonesty, abuse to teachers and pupils, and disruption to lessons.

The tribunal also found there were faults at each stage of the process that sometimes led to “imbalanced or baseless conclusions”, and said that because of the seriousness of the allegations against Basit and the implications for his career, “the most thorough and careful of investigations was required”, but that this investigation “did not meet that standard”.

​​Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, said that the case highlighted the importance of getting the dismissal process right. “[This case] shows the importance of pausing a disciplinary process if necessary in order to ascertain further facts and consider all the evidence before any decision is made,” she said.

Pleckgate High School has been contacted for comment. Basit could not be reached.