'Brilliant' head is cleared of slapping girl, six

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The Independent Online

A headteacher who was accused of slapping the face of a six-year-old girl with behavioural problems was cleared of assault yesterday.

Pamela Mitchelhill, the head of Crocketts Lane Primary School in Smethwick, West Midlands, was alleged to have slapped the pupil, who was out of control during a numeracy lesson.

But Warley magistrates' court heard that the child had denied 11 times during a police video interview that anyone had ever hurt her while at school. Unusually, the girl appeared as a witness for the defence rather than for the prosecution.

Mrs Mitchelhill, 50, old was alleged to have slapped the youngster twice round the face after her behaviour during a lesson became out of control. The case rested on the testimony of a student nursery nurse and a trainee teacher who claimed they saw Mrs Mitchelhill, 50, strike the pupil from some distance and through a partly-obscured window. The head, whose management of Crocketts Lane led to it winning beacon status and being named as one of the top 200 primaries in the country, maintained she had only turned the pupil's head around five times while talking to her to make her establish eye contact.

Outside court, NASUWT regional negotiator Pete Cole said headteachers in the borough of Sandwell were two to three times more likely to undergo a full police investigation in child protection cases than anywhere else in the country.

He said five heads in the area had gone through a similar ordeal to Mrs Mitchelhill over the past three years and four of them were acquitted.

Mr Cole added: "What I am calling for is a review of child protection procedures and practices in Sandwell because it is increasingly apparent that there are serious problems with the way in which child protection matters in the Sandwell borough are investigated."

Mrs Mitchelhill, who has an unblemished record in her 29-year career and was described in court as a "brilliant" practitioner who inspired pupils and staff, remained composed as the not-guilty verdict was read out. Many of the two dozen relatives, friends and colleagues who supported her throughout sobbed before applauding.

Roger Hewitson, the chairman of the bench, said the two teachers had witnessed the alleged incident from 42ft away through a window partly covered with artwork while dealing with a class of 37 youngsters. He said they had misinterpreted Mrs Mitchelhill's actions.

Mrs Mitchelhill, who has two children, has been suspended since April. She said outside the court: "I am delighted that the truth has been recognised in this case.

"I wish to thank my family, friends and professional colleagues who have supported me throughout this very difficult ordeal."

A West Midlands Police spokesman said: "If an allegation is made against a person, then we have to thoroughly investigate it. Their occupation, where they live or where they work has no bearing at all."

Union leaders called for a review of the way child protection cases are investigated yesterday.The NASUWT said that it was concerned about the number of headteachers in the West Midlands who had been subjected to a police investigation over unfounded allegations involving children.