Sacked PE teacher defended during protests was 'unlawfully victimised', judge rules

Protesters hung banners outside North Huddersfield Trust School (Photo: Nathan Hyde)
Protesters hung banners outside North Huddersfield Trust School (Photo: Nathan Hyde)

Employment Judge Neil Maidment ruled that Louise Lewis was unfairly dismissed by North Huddersfield Trust School, but said there was no evidence to support her claims of racial discrimination.

The judge said headteacher Andrew Fell was “hurt by” a legitimate grievance she had filed against him and that was one of the reasons why he wanted her to leave.

Protests were held outside the school gates after she was suspended and some teachers went on strike.

In May 2021, a disciplinary hearing cleared the PE teacher of several allegations, but found she left a lesson without explanation.

She was also found to have committed “unprofessional behaviour”, as she accused Mr Fell of abusing his power when he called her in for a meeting to discuss her conduct.

The panel said she could return to school when “a reintegration plan was in place", but Mr Fell said he would quit if she returned, claiming their working relationship was “irretrievably broken".

The two teachers fell out in November 2019, when Ms Lewis, who was a National Education Union representative, mistakenly sent an email to all members of staff containing a false claim concerning part-time employees’ contracted hours.

He called a staff meeting and made sure an email was sent to all teachers, to explain the claim was false and misleading.

Ms Lewis said she had been singled out for the mistake because she was black and similar errors, made by white colleagues, were treated differently.

When the two of them met in December 2019, she accused the headteacher of bullying and harassment before leaving in tears.

Their relationship then deteriorated, as she submitted a grievance about his behaviour, and he complained about “a clearly established pattern of misconduct”.

Mr Fell said she refused to attend an event with parents, turned up late to lessons, made unjustified complaints about the rota and refused to attend work in September 2020 because of concerns about Covid-19.

Ms Lewis claimed she had legitimate reasons for her absences and Mr Fell had refused to meet with her to discuss NEU concerns.

The teacher said she was also stereotyped as an “angry black woman”, after finding out that he had described her as “aggressive”.

After being asked to return to school, Ms Lewis said she did not feel there had been any breakdown in trust and confidence, and said she was happy to return to work and put the dispute behind her.

She then distanced herself from the protests at the school gates, claiming she had no involvement.

However, Mr Fell said he could not continue to work at the school if she returned, especially after he had been presented in the media as a racist.

“I found this extremely difficult and have been put under immense pressure and have struggled to mentally cope,” he said.

The governors ultimately decided that Ms Lewis should be dismissed because her relationship with Mr Fell had been damaged beyond repair.

Employment Judge Maidment said Mr Fell “did show an eagerness to take the claimant to task” for her alleged misconduct but there was no evidence of racial discrimination or stereotyping.

The judge also said Ms Lewis has been “unlawfully victimised” and unfairly dismissed because Mr Fell objected to a legitimate grievance she had filed.

“Mr Fell was hurt by the claimant’s grievance and that, whilst it was not completely down to that, the grievance contributed to the breakdown in relationships,” he stated.

“Mr Fell’s reaction to the claimant’s complaints did not arise because of the claimant’s colour or because accusations were being made by a black teacher.

"Mr Fell’s reaction was not permissible, but it arose out of him being indignant at being accused of discrimination in circumstances where he understood that to be a most serious allegation which caused him great personal hurt and in circumstances where he did not believe that there was any substance to the allegations.”