Job bar on headteacher 'was racist'

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The Independent Online
CHARGES of racism have been levelled at a county council after it blocked the appointment of an Asian headteacher at one of its schools.

John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, has agreed to intervene in a bitter dispute between Lea First School, in Slough, and Berkshire County Council.

The Commission for Racial Equality is also investigating the case and has launched industrial tribunal proceedings on behalf of Dr Kanagarajah Vigneswaren, who was offered the headship of the school by its governors - only to have it withdrawn weeks later.

The council objected to Dr Vigneswaren's appointment because it claimed recruitment of the head involved irregular procedures. It also said that he lacked primary school experience, although Dr Vigneswaren had been deputy director of a primary school in the United States before working as head of year in a Slough secondary school.

Dr Vigneswaren and several of the Lea First School governors say racism is at the root of the matter. 'I am bitter,' Dr Vigneswaren said. 'I am from Sri Lanka and I am an idealist so I don't like to think negatively about anyone, but I am forced to feel there is a lot of racism in Berkshire.'

Mr Ram Kumar Kaushal, chairman of the school's governors, echoed this view. 'At first we were told it was about primary school experience, now it is a procedural matter. It all boils down to the fact that the person we have appointed is Asian,' he said.

Lea First School, where 92 per cent of the pupils are of Asian origin, has been without a permanent headteacher for a year since the last head became ill and took early retirement.

The governors shortlisted four applicants, all of them black and none with primary school experience in Britain. The terms of the Education Reform Act 1988 do not specify that primary school heads must have primary school qualifications or experience.

However, Stanley Goodchild, chief education officer of Berkshire, wrote to the chairman of governors before the interviews in January to warn him that he was making a mistake. Nevertheless, the interview panel, assured of the legal position, decided to go ahead.

The council says its letter should have been shown to all the governors and that Mr Kaushal's failure to do this justifies its blocking of the appointment. This the council felt entitled to do, for although governors need only consider advice from the local authority under Local Management of Schools, councillors have the power under the Education Reform Act to veto appointments on the grounds that the chosen candidate is not suitably qualified.

Dr Vigneswaren was selected, although he was not a unanimous choice, and the governors ratified the decision. Mr Kaushal made the offer in writing, and normally the council's endorsement would have been a formality. However, councillors voted to block the appointment, and put the school's governors under pressure to reverse their appointment. This they eventually did, and instead renewed the contract of the acting headteacher, a retired secondary head, for another term.

Mr Goodchild denied that there had been any racism by the authority, and said that it had acted properly throughout the whole process. Several local schools, including the nursery and middle schools attached to Lea First School, had black headteachers, he said.

'We have been very proud of some of the black heads we have appointed in recent times. Our racial policies have national recognition and we take that aspect of our work very seriously indeed.

'We like to feel we support governing bodies fully in the appointment process.'

The Department for Education confirmed that Mr Patten would decide whether or not Berkshire has acted properly in blocking the appointment.