A school taking the decision to dismiss a member of staff will have done so in accordance with their disciplinary policy.
Dismissals are therefore not ‘snap’ decisions – there should be no headteachers modelling themselves on Lord Sugar and declaring “You’re fired!” within the education sector!
However, the context of a dismissal can vary. It might arise from a one-off incident that amounts to an act of gross misconduct – in which case the staff member involved may have already been away from the school site for a period of time due to suspension – or be the end result of an accumulation of smaller disciplinary issues.
In any case, specialist HR advice should be sought in such cases, particularly when the outcome could potentially result in a termination of employment. School leaders considering dismissal as a potential outcome in such instances should be able to plan accordingly for the aftermath.
Context is key
The position held by the dismissed employee can be fundamental in terms of the impact their dismissal has upon the organisation, along with other factors such as the longevity of their service and the visibility of their role to pupils, parents and other agencies.
In rare cases, the events leading to the dismissal may result in multiple members of staff being dismissed, or in some staff receiving lesser sanctions under the school’s disciplinary process. In some instances, the events in question may have left one or more ‘victims’ who remain in place at the school, and will understandably require some form of appropriate support in coping with said events, such as a referral to occupational health.
These and other contextual factors shape the ripple effect that any dismissal will have for a school and its stakeholders – not least other staff, but also pupils, parents, governors and potentially the wider community too.
This ripple effect can be amplified tenfold in circumstances where the ‘outside world’ has already been made aware of some of the facts feeding into the school’s decision to dismiss – if, for example, the events took place outside school, or came about as the result of a complaint.
Unrest within a school community can also attract media attention. Preparing for the possibility of such attention, and managing your response to it, will require some specialist assistance from, for example, an LA or MAT press officer. High profile dismissals can be one of those events that pose the potential for real reputational damage.
In extremely serious cases of dismissal – those involving gross misconduct relating to fraud or safeguarding failures, for instance – it may be that other agencies need to become involved, such as the police, the courts, the Disclosure and Barring Service, Teaching Regulation Agency or Ofsted.
As previously noted, the fallout from a staff dismissal won’t be isolated to that one employee, but will affect to varying degrees levels of trust, morale and wellbeing among your wider staff. Headteachers should therefore ensure that all levels of management involved in disciplinary matters are properly trained in the school’s policies and procedures.
Just like any other employer, schools have a duty to ensure that disputes are handled fairly and consistently across their organisation. That includes the terminology used to discuss such matters, agreement on what sanctions should be applied and when, and an acceptance of the absolute necessity for confidentiality to apply to all personnel matters.
“It’s best practice to reflect on why someone has had to be dismissed and the processes undertaken as a result. What caused the individual to be in that position in the first place?”
However, there is also the necessity to weigh this requirement for confidentiality against the need to inform others of particular facts at pertinent times. Striking an appropriate balance between not saying enough and saying too much can be difficult, and can carry potential legal ramifications if not handled correctly.
Unfortunately, choosing to say nothing at all is rarely a practical option, since silence can create fertile ground for gossip and risk diminishing trust in the leadership.
The level of information you’re able to provide will likely depend on how the announcements are timed. Sometimes you may only be able to inform staff that someone won’t be at school ‘for the foreseeable future’, without being able to share any further details for legal reasons. This at least enables leaders to provide workload support, put cover arrangements in place and so forth. It’s also worth giving staff the opportunity to ask questions, even if you’re not in a position to answer them right now.
In instances like this, staff ought to understand and appreciate the professionalism you’re affording them. Use the opportunity to reinforce to your staff the need for confidentiality – though again, care should be taken with how you phrase this. It’s always recommended to obtain specialist HR advice on how to communicate with your school’s staff at such times. Different levels of information will be needed by your governors, parents and pupils. The messages they receive have to be consistent, but careful consideration should be given as to the wording used, how the announcement of multiple messages should be timed and what the preferred method for disseminating such messages ought to be.
Don’t forget about staff who aren’t based on site at the end of the school day, who work part time or are on long-term sick leave or maternity absence. Be sure to include that one governor who doesn’t have an email address. Remember those parents who haven’t signed up for the messaging service and those for whom English isn’t their first language. Putting these arrangements in place ahead of time will help leaders deal with the aftermath that inevitably follows a dismissal, as it may make them feel more assured about the prospect of delivering such an announcement, and help move the school’s focus onto life without that member of staff more quickly than may have been the case otherwise.
It’s best practice to reflect on why someone has had to be dismissed and the processes undertaken as a result. What caused the individual concerned to be in that position in the first place? Could matters have been handled differently? Did existing policies and procedures enable the school to manage the situation in a timely fashion?
This is a time for learning as a leadership team – an opportunity to appreciate what worked well, but also to acknowledge whether anything can be improved. What can sometimes emerge from a formal disciplinary outcome, alongside the decision to dismiss, is the recommendation for a school to review certain practices. It may that an audit has to be undertaken, or that further staff training needs to be arranged, so that awareness of a particular issue is brought up to date, or an appropriate culture is embedded – for example, with respect to GDPR, safeguarding or social media use.
During this time, the school will obviously have had to carry out its normal day-to-day functions and deal with all the standard events occurring at whatever time of year the dismissal might have taken place – SATs tests, school plays, school trips and all the rest. At such times, the rest of your staff will need even more acknowledgement than usual on the part of SLT that their hard work is much appreciated, and that the school’s focus will always remain on putting the children first.