Welsh town divided by the case of the 'slapping' headteacher

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The Independent Online

The tearful child clutched her mother's hand and said: "I don't want to go to school, Mummy, if she is coming back."

The tearful child clutched her mother's hand and said: "I don't want to go to school, Mummy, if she is coming back."

The reputation of Marjorie Evans went before her yesterday as parents, residents and pupils in the south Wales town where she was suspended as a primary headteacher 12 months ago wrestled with a debate that has split their community.

The case of the 56-year-old head, who was cleared last week of slapping a disruptive pupil but remains suspended from her post while new allegations are investigated, has sparked nationwide concern about how to protect teachers from malicious allegations without covering up abuse.

But among the leafy avenues surrounding Mrs Evans' primary school in Monmouthshire - which cannot be named because of legal restrictions - the debate is much more personal. This is a deeply polarised argument about whether an upstanding teacher has been demonised for nothing more than running a disciplined school and her career threatened by a vindictive few. It is conducted every morning as parents drop off their children.

Yesterday morning, the mother of the reluctant eight-year-old said: "My daughter is worried that if Mrs Evans comes back she is going to get told off. Mrs Evans was seen as being very strict and the children pick up on that. They hear about the court case and whether it is justified or not she becomes a figure to be feared."

Jean Evans, 36, with three children, added: "I have been into that school and heard shouting and screaming. It was not from Mrs Evans but she is responsible for the ethos of the place. If we have got scared children ... then the best thing is that she bows out."

But for every similar opinion there was another parent eager to defend the suspended head.

Andrea Williams, 31, who has two children and is a helper at the school of 200-plus pupils, said: "The sooner she returns the better. She is a fantastic teacher. Mrs Evans has done so much for my children."

A 42-year-old man, hurrying his daughter through the drizzle, said: "This is a debate about a teacher of long and unblemished service. If the miasma of gossip and rumour cannot be proved to be anymore than that, then it must stop and Mrs Evans allowed to return."

Gwent police were still investigating at least four allegations of "inappropriate physical and emotional handling of pupils" against Mrs Evans and another teacher, Janet Bowen, who has also been suspended. At the heart of the claims are complaints that discipline at the school is excessive.

Parents opposed to Mrs Evans yesterday pointed to the fact that an after-school detention is operated for pupils aged between seven and eleven, a sanction traditionally reserved for secondary schools.

The traditionalist approach was cited by one member of staff as the reason alluded to by supporters of the headteacher for the alleged "witch-hunt" against her. The worker, who declined to be named but denied making any allegations against the headteacher, said it was likely that she was a victim of her own iron will. She said: "When you make a virtue out of running a tight ship then those who prefer more liberal methods will beg to differ ... But this is not a brutal place and there is no violence."

The headteacher had hoped what she termed her "year-long nightmare" was over on Friday last week when her conviction for common assault against a 10-year-old boy with learning difficulties was overturnedat Cardiff Crown Court. Mr Justice McKinnon said Mrs Evans, a teacher for 35 years, had been convicted on "deeply flawed" evidence and that she stood with her "very good character entirely intact and without any blemish".

However, within hours of her acquittal a joint criminal investigation by police and Monmouthshire social services and education authority was revealed to have been launched into fresh allegations and Mrs Evans' return to school was delayed.

Among the new claims, understood to date back over three years, are allegations that during a sponsored walk a skipping rope was used to tie two children together by an unidentified member of staff. Another involved a boy being "forcibly removed" from the library by three members of staff. Shouting in an "inappropriate tone of voice" is also alleged, Mrs Evans' solicitor, Ian Williams, says.

Mr Williams said: "The allegations have been made by adults at the school. No direct complaint has been received from a parent or a pupil and my client has not been interviewed."

Union leaders backing Mrs Evans' campaign for reinstatement criticised the decision not to interview her about the new allegations. Gethin Lewis, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers in Wales, said yesterday: "Mrs Evans should have been interviewed about the allegations against her and the investigation into the school before she was suspended again last Friday."

It is understood that the allegations were made by a supply teacher no longer at the school, a nursery nurse and a member of administrative staff.

Mrs Evans has the backing of the 10 governors, who decided on Thursday night to continue her suspension only after it was made clear that the Welsh National Assembly would have been asked by local education authority chiefs to overturn any decision to reinstate her.

Graham Powell, chairman of the governors, said: "I have made my feelings on the allegations against Mrs Evans clear - they are bizarre. I hope we will be in a position to reinstate Mrs Evans shortly."

Such a move may anger some parents but for others yesterday it was the only sensible course of action. One father, dropping off his excited son, said: "Look at my kid running as quick as he can to get into that school. That says more than a thousand words about the sort of place it is. He loves it here and that should be a good enough reason for any parent."