United Kingdom

Academic wrongly suspended for alleged grade tampering set to be awarded damages, tribunal rules

A former Durham University academic is expected to be awarded substantial damages after an employment tribunal ruled she was wrongly suspended for alleged grade tampering.

Dr Sue Stothard set test questions for pupils in her role as director at Duham's Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM), a body which runs exams for England's 163 grammar schools.

But in September 2018, the education expert was falsely accused of “colluding” with grammar schools in Buckinghamshire to “skew” test data in favour of “county applications”.

She was suspended and subjected to disciplinary action, despite not being properly told the details of the alleged offences, an employment tribunal in Newcastle was told.

The 52-year-old, who joined the Durham centre in 2011, shortly after resigned from her role, claiming her employers had destroyed their working relationship.

In her departing letter to Emma Beatty, the chief executive of CEM, Dr Stothard wrote: “I have done nothing wrong. I have been subjected to an unfair suspension; at no stage have I been provided with any adequate explanation as to what I have allegedly done wrong.”

“My grievances have been ignored and I have been subjected to a quite overbearing approach regarding a requirement to attend interview. No account has been taken of my health issues.”

It was known to bosses that Dr Stothard suffered from colitis and the lengthy suspension period was claimed to have helped cause her condition to deteriorate and impact her mental health.

Now, after arguing her suspension had been a “knee-jerk” reaction, she has won an unfair dismissal claim and a disability discrimination claim.

Employment Judge Morris ruled “it was an over-hasty reaction in all the circumstances”, concluding that the academic was put at a “substantial disadvantage” in relation to her health issues.

“The tribunal considers that a very practical alternative, at least initially, would have been to ask [Dr Stothard] for an explanation of whether there might be any basis for the allegations made. In that respect [she] wrote a very comprehensive email to Ms Beatty.

“She hoped that email would be read and it would be realised that the terrible mistake had been made, which would be corrected but there is no evidence that the email was considered at all.”

Joanne Race, director of HR and organisation development at Durham University, said: “We are carefully considering the judgement of the employment tribunal", adding that the Russell Group institution is a “Disability Confident Employer" which has “procedures in place to manage staff disciplinary issues in a fair and transparent manner”.

Dr Stothard, who is also a chartered psychologist and has worked at York and Newcastle universities, has set up her own “Stothard Education” company.  CEM is now run by the University of Cambridge.

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