From The Daily Mail U.K.
Headmistress wrongly accused of racism by Muslim governors wins £400,000 payout
By Daily Mail Reporter
Last updated at 10:22 AM on 19th March 2010
A headmistress hounded out of her job after being falsely accused of racism by two Muslim governors is entitled to £400,000 damages, the Court of Appeal ruled today.
Erica Connor, 57, had run a ‘happy and successful’ primary school but was driven to a breakdown by the allegations.
She left the New Monument primary school in Woking, Surrey, after Paul Martin – a Muslim convert – and Mumtaz Saleem began monopolising meetings with the aim of turning New Monument in Woking into an Islamic faith school.
The Surrey town is home to the first purpose-built mosque in the country – the Shah Jahan Mosque – which dates from 1889.
A deputy High Court judge ruled in March last year that Surrey County Council had failed in its duty to protect her and to intervene when the actions of the governors created problems. He awarded her £407,700 damages.
The council had appealed against the ruling, claiming it was not liable in law and had not acted negligently in dealing with the problem.
Lord Justice Laws, giving a ruling today, said Mrs Connor, who was promoted to head of the school in 1998, had suffered psychiatric damage and had to stop work in 2005 and retired a year later on ill-health grounds.
The school had a 80-85% Muslim intake and problems began in 2003 when Martin was elected a parent governor and Saleem was appointed as a local education authority governor.
Martin started making allegations about anti-Muslim comments by members of staff which led to an investigation by Mrs Connor.
An official review also found no evidence of deliberate racism or religious bias but said the governing body had become dysfunctional.
The High Court had been told Martin tried to stir up disaffection in the community against the school and Mr Saleem was verbally abusive in school meetings.
Although during the first five years that Mrs Connor was in charge of the school there had been good relations with the local Muslim community and improved results, the situation changed when the two men were elected as governors.
Judge John Leighton Williams ruled in the High Court that the men had an agenda to increase the role of the Muslim religion in the school and that this, combined with the authority’s failure to protect Mrs Connor, had led her to suffer serious depression.
When Martin was removed from the board of governors in June 2005, he wrote a letter of complaint saying it was because he had been raising complaints of institutional racism within the school.
A few days later a petition was circulated calling for Mrs Connor’s removal from the school and containing “defamatory and offensive remarks”, the appeal judges were told.
Lord Justice Laws said the High Court judge was right to find there had been negligence on the part of the council.
He said it was an unusual case – “partly because of the council’s lamentable capitulation to aggression”.
Lord Justice Sedley said: “Surrey County Council found itself faced with the unenviable task of responding in an equitable fashion to an inequitable campaign designed to capture a secular state school for a particular faith which happened to be that of a majority of the families whose children attended the school.”
He said the council had gone wrong by trying to compromise rather than protecting the head, the staff and the school.
“The picture that emerges from the careful and thorough (High Court) judgment is of a local education authority which had allowed itself to be intimidated by an aggressively conducted campaign to subvert the school’s legal status, a campaign which was plainly destabilising the school and placing the headteacher under intolerable pressure.”