The General Teaching Council for Scotland

General Teaching Council for Scotland Fitness to Teach Outcome

FULL HEARING

14 and 15 March 2019

 Teacher  Claire Sinclair (present and represented)
 Registration Number 931006
 Registration category  Primary
 Panel  Michelle Herron (Convener), Frieda Fraser and Arthur Stewart
 Legal Assessor  Robert Frazer
 Servicing Officer  Louise Jackson
 Presenting Officer  Natalie McCartney, Anderson Strathern
 Teacher's representative  Martin Walker, Balfour & Manson

Any reference in this decision to:

  • "GTCS" means the General Teaching Council for Scotland
  • the "Panel" means the Fitness to Teach Panel considering the case
  • the "Rules" (and any related expression) means the GTCS Fitness to Teach and Appeals Rules 2012 or refers to a provision (or provisions) within them
  • the "Register" means the GTCS register of teachers

Preliminary Issues

The Presenting Officer, on behalf of GTCS, moved to redact two of the charges contained in the original copy complaint from Perth Sheriff Court. They were part of the GTCS bundle of documents but were not part of the allegations brought against the Teacher. This was not opposed by Mr Walker and, in the circumstances, was agreed to by the Panel.

In addition, Mr Walker, on behalf of the Teacher, moved to introduce a signed copy of the statement of Witness 4 as the one lodged in the bundle was unsigned. This was not opposed by the Presenting Officer and was also agreed to by the Panel.

Allegations

The following allegations were considered at the hearing:
  1. On or around 16 March 2017 at Perth Sheriff Court you pled guilty and were found guilty of the following offences:
    1. “Between 27th December 2013 and 26th December 2014 both dates inclusive at [Redacted] you CLAIRE MADELEINE SINCLAIR did, with a view to obtaining any benefit or other payment or advantage under the relevant social security legislation as defined in section 121DA of the after mentioned Act, knowingly make to officials of DEPARTMENT FOR WORK AND PENSIONS a false statement or representation, namely on A1 claim form for Income Support signed and dated 27/12/2013 that you declared that you were unemployed and had no earned income, the truth being that you were in full time employment with Perth and Kinross Council Education Department and you did thereby obtain Income Support of £5,000 to which you were not entitled;

      CONTRARY to the Social Security Administration Act 1992 Section 111A(1)(a)”; and

    2. “Between 3rd December 2012 and 11th January 2015 both dates inclusive at [Redacted] you CLAIRE MADELEINE SINCLAIR did knowingly fail to give prompt notification in the prescribed manner to Officials of Department for Work and Pensions the prescribed person, of a change of circumstances which you knew affected your entitlement to benefit or other payment of advantage namely Carers Allowance, as defined in the aftermentioned Act, in that you failed to notify a change in your circumstances namely that you were employed by Perth and Kinrosss Council Education Department and were in receipt of earnings in excess of the prescribed limit and you did thereby obtain Carers Allowance of £5,000 to which you were not entitled;

      CONTRARY to the Social Security Administration Act 1992 Section 111A(1A) as amended

    3. And you were made subject to a Restriction of Liberty Order and ordered to repay the monies within a period of two years.

    And in light of the above, it is alleged that your fitness to teach is impaired and you are unfit to teach, as a result of breaching Parts 1.3, 1.4 and 1.6 of the General Teaching Council for Scotland’s Code of Professionalism and Conduct.

Teacher’s Admissions

The Teacher admitted the factual allegations and advised that her fitness to teach was impaired but she was not unfit to teach.

Hearing Papers

In accordance with Rule 1.7.17, the Panel admitted all of the documents and statements listed below as evidence for the purposes of the hearing:

Presenting Officer’s Hearing Papers

P1 Copy complaint from Perth Sheriff Court dated 13 September 2016
P2 Perth & Kinross Council Investigation Report dated 11 May 2017 and appendices
P3 Letter from Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service dated 5 July 2017 with redacted summary of evidence

Teacher’s Hearing Papers
T1 Statement of Teacher
T2 Letter of representation dated 23 August 2017 with enclosures
T3 Statement of Witness 1, dated 3 March 2019
T4 Statement of Witness 3, dated 4 March 2019
T5 Statement of Witness 5, dated 4 March 2019
T6 Statement of Witness 6, dated 19 February 2019
T7 Statement of Witness 2, dated 28 February 2019
T8 Statement of Witness 4
T9 Copy photographs
T10 Letter from GP dated 4 September 2018
T11 Medical report from Witness 7 dated 22 February 2018
T12 Supplementary medical report from Witness 7 dated 27 August 2018
T13 Email from HR Officer, Perth & Kinross Council, dated 25 February 2019

Servicing Officer’s hearing papers
S1 Notice of hearing, dated 14 February 2019 S2 Procedural hearing decision, dated 11 September 2018

Summary of Evidence

The evidence in support of the allegation came from the copy of the complaint served on the Teacher which was called in Perth Sheriff Court on 13 September 2016. The Panel took account of the letter from the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service dated 5 July 2017 and noted that the Teacher pled guilty to two amended charges as outlined in the GTCS allegations on 16 March 2017. She was sentenced to a Restriction of Liberty Order for 6 months and ordered to pay a cumulative sum of £10,000 to the Department of Work & Pensions within a period of two years.

Findings of Fact on the Allegation

The Panel gave careful consideration to the evidence presented and submissions made by the parties. It had regard to the terms of the amended complaint and the information provided by the Procurator Fiscal Service. It took full account of the Teacher’s admissions.

Having regard to the provisions of Rules 1.7.18 and 1.7.19, dealing with criminal convictions, including the fact that there was no evidence disputing that the person named in the relevant documentation was the Teacher, the Panel found that the facts set out in the allegation were proved.

Findings on Fitness to Teach

Given that the allegation was proved, by reason of the Teacher’s admissions, the Panel invited the parties to lead evidence and make submissions in relation to the Teacher’s fitness to teach.

The Presenting Officer did not present further evidence at this stage of the hearing.

The Teacher gave oral evidence under oath. She accepted that she had committed the offences to which she had pled guilty in court. She confirmed she had complied with the Restriction of Liberty Order imposed on her and had made full repayment of the £10,000 which had been ordered by the court. She repaid the full amount by 16 September 2017. She explained that since the incident she had put her own measures in place in order to prevent any reoccurrence of the offences. This included providing her father, Witness 1, with details of all her income and expenditure in order for him to check that she was living within her means and ensuring all household bills were paid.

The Teacher further explained that at the time of the offending, she had returned to live in Scotland from England with her husband and family. She had previously worked as a DHT in England for 10 years from 2002. At the time she returned to Scotland she was in receipt of Carers Allowance for her autistic son. She was also suffering from an aggressive form of [Redacted] which was first diagnosed in 2009. In 2012 she began working at her present school but accepted that in December 2013 she had made a claim for Income Support from the DWP, to which she was not entitled. She had also continued to claim Carers Allowance without notifying the DWP of her change of employment status. She was unable to explain why she had acted in this way but stated that in December 2013 she suffered a [Redacted] which had resulted in a significant cognitive impairment which, for a period of about 6 months, affected her memory, speech and sight. She was prescribed medication and stated that her ability to properly function at the time was adversely affected, as was her decision making.

She explained that she was now in much better health. She remained on medication and had been diagnosed as suffering from [Redacted], partly as a result of the GTCS investigation and process. However, her health had improved, and she had continued to work as a teacher at the same school. She regarded herself as a popular teacher with her pupils and colleagues. Whilst her husband was no longer living in the family home she was managing to cope better in looking after her son and dealing with her finances. She apologised for her actions and stated she had learned a great deal from what had happened. She was deeply ashamed of her behaviour for which she took responsibility. She stated that she would never again act in such a fashion. She advised that she loved teaching and that, “she would be nothing without teaching”. She had no other income and that removal from the GTCS register would have devastating consequences for herself and her family. In relation to the allegations, she had also been subject to a disciplinary hearing by the local authority, which had resulted in her being given a final written warning.

The Teacher’s father, Witness 1, also gave evidence. He is a retired Chartered Accountant. He explained that on learning of his daughter’s offending he had entered into an “informal Power of Attorney” arrangement with her, whereby she now periodically sends him her bank statements for his perusal to ensure she is able to manage her finances and not get herself into any other financial difficulties in future. He confirmed that he considered that she had learned greatly from this whole experience.
Witness 7 gave evidence by telephone conference. He confirmed that the Teacher has [Redacted] which is currently being managed with medication and therapy. He had seen a dramatic improvement in her health since she was referred to him in 2011. He believed she was now able to function much better and her condition could be described as currently stable.

In addition, Mr Walker, on the Teacher’s behalf, submitted a number of written statements from the Teacher’s work colleagues all of which attested positively to her teaching capabilities and the role she played with her pupils, who had additional support needs which required learning support.

Decision

The Panel gave careful consideration to all of the evidence presented and submissions made by the parties in relation to the Teacher’s fitness to teach.

The Presenting Officer submitted that given the serious nature of the allegations the Teacher had brought the profession into disrepute, breached fundamental tenets. She referred to Parts 1.3. 1.4 and 1.6 of the GTCS Code of Professionalism and Conduct (CoPaC), which were relevantly linked to the admitted allegations. She submitted that whilst it was a matter for the Panel’s judgement, taking everything together it could be concluded that the Teacher’s actions fell significantly short of the standards expected of a registered teacher and that she was unfit to teach.

In response, Mr Walker submitted that it was necessary to look at the Teacher’s current circumstances. Her health had improved and she had continued to teach without any further incident. He reminded the Panel that she had fully complied with the sentence imposed on her and repaid all the money within a relatively short period of time. He commended the testimonials to the Panel and referred to the fact that the local authority had chosen to mark the matter by way of a final written warning. In all the circumstances, he submitted that it could not be said that she was unfit to teach.

The Panel addressed the relevant considerations in relation to the Teacher’s fitness to teach, as outlined in the GTCS Indicative Outcomes Guidance (IOG). It took account of the Legal Assessor’s advice which included the need to firstly consider if the admitted allegations amounted to misconduct, before going on to determine if the Teacher’s fitness to teach was currently impaired. If the Panel concluded it was, then it must also consider if she fell so significantly short of the standards expected of a registered teacher that she was unfit to teach.

The Panel firstly determined that the allegations involving, as they did to two separate fraudulent claims made of the DWP resulting in criminal convictions amounted, in any view, to misconduct. It clearly fell short of what was expected of the standards of a registered teacher. The Panel further considered that by acting in such a fashion, the Teacher breached the following parts of CoPaC:

1.3 avoid situations which amount to a breach of the criminal law

1.4 uphold standards of personal and professional conduct, honesty and integrity so the public have confidence in teachers and the profession

1.6 maintain awareness that a teacher is a role model to pupils

The Panel also took account of the mitigating circumstances surrounding the allegations and, in particular, the Teacher’s health. She has continued to suffer from [Redacted] and, in addition, in December 2013, she had a [Redacted] which, undoubtedly, affected her cognitive functioning and judgement. The Panel noted that she has now made a good recovery and her [Redacted] appeared to have stabilised significantly.

Taking all factors into account, the Panel determined that whilst there had been no harm caused to pupils or others by acting as she did, the Teacher did bring the profession into disrepute and, with reference to the relevant parts of CoPaC above, she had breached fundamental tenets of the profession.

The Panel further determined that there had been no further incident or repetition of such conduct, and that the Teacher had taken certain steps to try to address her behaviour. This included attending counselling in order to understand her behaviour and the support provided by her father. The Panel also noted the genuine remorse that she had displayed during her evidence. In all the circumstances, the Panel considered that the risk of repetition was low but, it could not conclude that it was highly unlikely there would not be a reoccurrence. In addition, the Panel considered that public confidence in the profession could, in any event, be undermined if a finding of impairment of fitness to teach were not made.

In all the circumstances, the Panel concluded that the allegations found proved represented conduct that fell short of the standards expected of a registered teacher and that the Teacher’s fitness to teach was therefore impaired.

However, it did not consider, in the particular circumstances outlined in the case, that the Teacher’s conduct fell so significantly short of the standards to be expected of a registered teacher that, at this stage, she was unfit to teach.

Disposal

Having found that the Teacher’s fitness to teach was impaired, the Panel went on to consider the sanction options available to it terms of the IOG. It had regard to the submissions of the parties and also took account of the Legal Assessor’s advice. It was reminded of the need to ensure that proper regard was taken of all aggravating and mitigating factors and that any sanction that was imposed was both appropriate and proportionate.

The Panel firstly considered the aggravating factors to be:

  • The misconduct involved fraud of the DWP and had occurred over a protracted period of time
  • The sums involved were large

The Panel considered the mitigating factors to be:

  • There had been full repayment of the sums
  • The Teacher had expressed genuine remorse and shown insight into her behaviour
  • She had suffered from serious ill health issues at the time, which had affected her cognitive functioning
  • There had been no other referrals to GTCS or complaints made about her teaching practice
  • She was otherwise of good character and had provided positive testimonials in support of her as a teacher
The Panel first went on to consider a Reprimand. It noted the features listed in the IOG and considered that all of the following were relevant and engaged:

Taking all the above into account the Panel determined that the matter could be properly addressed by a Reprimand, which would remain on the Teacher’s record for a specified period of time. The Panel considered that the length of the order should properly reflect the seriousness of the allegations and that the appropriate length should, therefore, be for the recommended maximum of two years. The Panel considered that this would adequately address the public interest and serve as a reminder to the Teacher and the profession that such behaviour cannot be condoned. The Panel further considered that such an order also took account of the mitigating factors that existed in the case, including the Teacher’s health at the time as well as her present symptoms and prognosis.

Prior to making its decision, the Panel seriously considered the imposition of a Conditional Registration Order together with a Reprimand. However, it concluded that it was not possible to formulate workable and measurable conditions which would enable the Teacher to have more formal assistance with her financial management, without imposing unnecessary burdens on other organisations outside her employer or school. In these circumstances, the Panel determined that a Reprimand for the maximum recommended period was sufficient and proportionate to mark the gravity of the admitted allegations.

The Panel further considered that for all the reasons given above and, in the whole circumstances of the case, an order for Removal was both inappropriate and disproportionate.

Accordingly, the Panel concluded that the Teacher be subject to a Reprimand for a period of two years. The Panel hoped that the Teacher would continue to make good progress with her health and other personal issues. It considered that continued engagement with counselling or any other mental health professional or service could be of benefit to her in coping with issues in her personal life. In addition, the Panel considered, engagement with her bank or any other independent financial support would also be of assistance.