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Vicar asked to apologise in school dispute

07 August 2020

Ashley C of E Primary School

Ashley C of E Primary School

Ashley C of E Primary School

A VICAR and governing-body member of a Church of England multi-academy trust — a trust that was recently found by a regulatory body to have wrongly forced out a popular head teacher — has been asked by former members of her congregation to apologise for her alleged inaction in the case.

The Vicar of St Mary’s, Walton-on-Thames, the Revd Cathy Blair, was the vice-chair of the local governing body (LGB) of Ashley C of E Primary School when its head teacher, Richard Dunne, resigned last November (News, 31 January). His resignation came on the eve of an investigation, by a disciplinary panel, of several complaints against him brought by the Good Shepherd Trust, which runs the school.

The allegations included failing to comply with the school’s financial policies, displaying inappropriate professional conduct, a lack of adequate safeguarding, and dishonest conduct.

The disciplinary panel upheld seven of the 18 allegations. Because he had resigned, Mr Dunne was unable to appeal. After protests from parents, and a crowdfunding appeal in support of his subsequent legal challenge, however, the trust referred its treatment of him to the Teaching Regulation Agency and the Disclosure and Barring Service.

Mr Dunne was cleared by both bodies of all allegations last month.

Nigel Stapleton, who formerly chaired the LGB of Ashley School, and the vice-chair, Ms Blair, have reportedly been accused by a former parent governor of bullying behaviour during meetings concerning Mr Dunne. Mr Stapleton resigned in March. His successor, Chris Howard, resigned within a few weeks of his appointment. Ms Blair was announced as the new LGB chair earlier this month.

In an open letter published shortly before this was announced, two former members of Ms Blair’s congregation, Peter and Sara Shaw, ask her to “do the decent thing and seek forgiveness and reconciliation with Richard Dunne and his family”, now that the allegations against Mr Dunne have been formally dismissed.

They write: “Richard has suffered a great injustice that has put him and his family through 10 months of unimaginable anguish. As Vice Chair of Ashley School’s Local Governing Committee and one of the vicars of Richard’s parish, we think that would be the Christian, and decent, thing to do.

“We were, and still are, hugely saddened and disappointed that you and [the Revd Jonny Blair] did not act to defend or support Richard when he was forced to resign from the school. . . As a senior member of the LGB, and as Christian leaders in the community, we believe you should have taken a principled stand against the GST’s actions. We also know that you did not (according to Richard) offer any counselling support to him and his family.”

The situation has caused “huge damage” to community relations, they say. “If you don’t act now then the damage already done will only increase and the church will suffer even more as a result. We know of many current and past members of the church who are saddened and confused by your inaction, ourselves included.”

Ms Blair has declined to apologise, and argues that her responsibilities prevented her offering Mr Dunne any support. In a statement issued by the Good Shepherd Trust on Tuesday of last week, she said: “Revd Jonny and I were keen to ensure that pastoral care had been offered to Richard Dunne and his family during the investigations.

“Due to my role on the Local Governing Committee, I was advised not to contact Mr Dunne directly to preserve the integrity of the investigation. The community of Walton on Thames is extremely important to us and our church.

“Proceedings have been difficult for everyone involved and I am glad that the case is now over and that we can move forward. Our priority now is to support our community as it starts to recover and rebuild.”

A spokesperson for the trust said: “The Trust will be reflecting on our internal processes and judgements, using the summer break to finalise the steps we are putting in place to move forward. When a concern is raised, we have a statutory obligation to refer in certain cases.

“During the proceedings, all governors at Ashley School were responsible for keeping matters confidential to not compromise the investigation and to protect Mr Dunne and the other members of staff.

“The Trust remains committed to working in partnership with the parents of Ashley C of E Primary School and welcomes communication between the school and our community via the Ashley Parent Partnership.

“With a new chief executive in place, there is a focus on improving governance and accountability across the group to ensure best practice is adhered to. Ashley C of E Primary School has a bright future within the Good Shepherd Trust. Our children are at the heart of everything we do.”

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