Matthew Backhouse

Matthew Backhouse is an APNZ news reporter based in Wellington.

Teacher sacked after grades dispute

Parents' concerns about apparent differences in grading between teachers in the junior school lead to a dispute between the school and a teacher. Photo / Thinkstock
Parents' concerns about apparent differences in grading between teachers in the junior school lead to a dispute between the school and a teacher. Photo / Thinkstock

A teacher at one of New Zealand's most prestigious private boarding schools was sacked after a disagreement over grades descended into an drawn-out dispute involving allegations of threats and dishonesty.

Emma Fox was dismissed as a junior school teacher at Havelock North's Hereworth School in January 2010 after she refused to participate in numerous attempts at dispute resolution.

The dispute was sparked by a conversation with associate headmaster Shirley Cameron in July the previous year.

Ms Cameron had brought up parents' concerns about apparent differences in grading between teachers in the junior school.

Ms Fox thought it was being suggested that children she had taught had not progressed since leaving her class, and felt her professional integrity was being questioned.

She claimed Ms Cameron had asked her to change her end of year reports retrospectively so it did not look like children had declined in progress since leaving her class.

Ms Cameron denied she had asked Ms Fox to to that, and said she had merely reiterated the agreed standards for grading students.

The Employment Relations Authority has found Ms Fox was mistaken in her view of the conversation - but the disagreement did not end there.

"Whatever the truth of this conversation, it seems apparent to the authority that it started a whole chain of events which caused untold distress, not only to the parties to this litigation but also to members of the wider school community.

"What should have been no more and no less than at worst a professional disagreement, developed a life of its own such that allegations of dishonesty and various forms of impropriety became a commonplace as the dispute escalated."

Among Ms Fox's grievances was that the school had appointed the deputy chairman of the school's board, Doug Abraham, to conduct an investigation into the dispute.

Ms Fox also claimed he threatened her by stating in an email: "If you elect to discuss these matters externally, you do so at your own peril."

The authority agreed Mr Abraham could not be seen as independent and it was wrong-headed to portray him as impartial, but found he did not threaten her.

By November 2009, the matter took "a darker turn" when the school's lawyer wrote to Ms Fox to seek her assurance she had nothing to do with emails being circulated by disgruntled parents - an involvement she denied.

The authority said it was saddening that unhappy parents would circulate such material rather than addressing their concerns to school management, but Ms Fox had not been responsible for the emails.

Later that month, principal Ross Scrymgour asked two parents whether they had visited Ms Fox at her home - a question they thought was "very odd".

They had visited Ms Fox at her home to discuss their child's education because by that stage, Ms Fox was on maternity leave with her newborn child.

Ms Fox then became unnerved at the prospect that comings and goings at her house were being watched, and gave evidence that a neighbour had seen a suspicious car.

But the authority found there was no evidence her house was being watched.

Ms Fox and her husband subsequently moved to Northland, some 600km away.

She did not attend numerous proposed dispute resolution meetings, nor a final meeting at which she was dismissed in January 2010.

Authority member James Crichton found Ms Fox had breached good faith in refusing to participate in dispute resolution.

While the decision to engage Mr Abraham was wrong-headed, the school later did all it reasonably could to engage with Ms Fox.

But she insisted on only meeting certain people, put up pre-conditions to meeting, refused mediation unless it was held in another city, and refused to engage face to face.

Mr Crichton found the school was justified in dismissing her for serious misconduct as a result.

Costs were reserved.

- APNZ

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