School secretary jailed for £20,000 lunch money theft

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A school secretary who stole more than £20,000 of pupils' lunch money was jailed for six months yesterday.

Zowie Smith, 28, took the money while working at West Park Primary School in Porthcawl to try to pay off mounting debts. She was arrested when her actions came to light during an audit this year.

After pleading guilty to 10 charges of theft and 10 of false accounting, Smith was sentenced at Cardiff Crown Court. Judge Mark Evans said: "Going to prison will do you no good, I know. I am simply unable to consider an alternative to a custodial sentence is possible."

Tom Crowther, for the prosecution, said her actions were prompted by her "financial incontinence", which had left her heavily in debt to credit card companies. He added: "She had taken to robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Martyn Kelly, for the defence, said Smith had ensured that her actions did not deprive any of the pupils. "No child ever went without," he said. "This is a failure to account to her employers for money she had collected on their behalf."

He told the court that Smith had struggled to control her debts after the birth of her first child five years ago because she had not been entitled to maternity leave. Since then, Smith, who formerly worked as a secretary at the accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers, had continued to borrow money to help her family and took out more loans to repay her debts.

She has now been declared bankrupt with debts of £50,000.

According to Mr Kelly, she "fell foul to temptation" to try to reduce her massive debts, which she had kept secret from her husband and two children.

He said: "By the age of 26 she was receiving quite difficult phone calls from recovery agencies. She was hiding that from her family. She would have to get to the post before anybody else did. She would switch off the phone in the evening so that her husband would not be aware."