An award-winning head teacher is suing Britain’s largest education union and a local authority for harassment, claiming she was “forced” out of her career, The Independent can reveal.
Mahzia ‘Pepe’ Hart, 52, launched high court legal action against the National Education Union (NEU) for conspiracy to injure and harass, while Bath and North East Somerset Council (B&NES) stands accused of misfeasance in public office and harassment, which she said led to her resignation. Both defendants have denied the allegations in court documents seen by The Independent.
The educator was the head teacher of The Academy of Trinity Primary School in Radstock, Bristol, between 2005 - 2015 where she won national leadership accolades, including a Pride of Britain award, and garnered four ‘outstanding’ reports from school inspector Ofsted. Following good performance, the school became an academy in 2010 at the Department for Education’s (DfE) invitation.
But her final years were dogged by allegations she bullied staff amid mounting staff departures - claims she denied. Instead, she says her departure was the culmination of a long-standing campaign to oust her from the role.
“What I have gone through for the last seven years is more than likely unimaginable for most people,” Mrs Hart told The Independent, addressing the matter publicly in the press for the first time. “The mental trauma that I have gone through is unacceptable; however, I believe that things have been going on behind closed doors which saw me forced out of a career that I loved.”
“Today, I am speaking up and fighting back.”
Mrs Hart’s lawyers allege that Bath and North East Somerset Council (B&NES) “encouraged” individuals to make complaints about her, covertly logged information that would cause harm to her and shared sensitive information about her with third parties, abusing its position in doing so, court documents state.
In its defence, seen by The Independent, the local authority claims that investigations into Mrs Hart were in the context of its legal duties to ensure the safety of all children in its area, including at the school, and were not a personal attack against her.
Though acknowledging that the people identified by the former head were its staff members, B&NES denies liability.
Court documents claim David Biddleston, the NEU’s district secretary for the B&NES division, conspired with union members, council staff and Mrs Hart’s former colleagues through “secret meetings” and correspondence to get her sacked, damage her reputation and have her barred from the profession. The union denies this and states that Mr Biddleston was solely concerned with protecting the interests of members.
The union denies wrongdoing and argues that it was the district secretary who was contacted by individuals with complaints about the running of the school and people who “wished to join or support the union members” he was advising.
The district secretary, who has since left his role, told ex-teachers of the school that they could not be included in formal grievances about the school but he could pass on their comments to investigating governors, the union said.
B&NES Council was aware of meetings and correspondence between the union and current and former staff members but it did not notify Mrs Hart of this, court documents claim. This relates to Ms Hart’s allegations of misfeasance in public office, which the local authority denies.
The council has not replied to The Independent’s multiple requests for comment.
Between 2015 and 2016, numerous “damaging” articles appeared about Ms Hart in local media, causing significant distress and spawning harmful comments about Mrs Hart on social media. This had emotional and psychological ramifications, her lawyers said.
They claim the negative coverage and comments amounted to harassment, for which the NEU is liable, because Mr Biddleston allegedly incited accusations of wrongdoing against her and facilitated the press coverage. Both the council and union deny the allegations.
Though some 23 teachers left the school in three years due to alleged bullying by Mrs Hart, the teacher has maintained her innocence and claimed she was subjected to a “witch hunt”. Around this time, the NUT – now NEU - said it was worried about workloads, maternity rights and the lack of support for newly-qualified teachers at the school.
Some 27 children also reportedly left the school between September and December 2015, though some because they moved home.
“I did nothing wrong; I loved my job, the children, educating; everybody in that authority knew it. I was never afraid to challenge if something was not right for the children,” Mrs Hart said.
After Mrs Hart’s resignation, Ofsted placed the school in special measures amid waning performance levels. “I’ve always said that out of darkness comes light. I always telling the children to believe in themselves and will have energy until my last breath to ensure that this story does not end the way that they wanted to end.
“However dramatic that sounds.”
A NEU spokesperson said: "The NEU is strongly resisting this vexatious claim by Pepe Hart. All acts of members of the then NUT were in defence of the right of staff to a healthy working environment and their right to file legitimate grievances.
“No members of the NUT engaged in any form of unlawful conspiracy or carried out any unlawful acts at all.
“We find it bizarre that Mrs Hart seeks to persuade the court that basic trade unionism is an unlawful conspiracy."
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