Decision: Alison Hepburn (Full Hearing)
Fitness to Teach Panel Outcome
21, 22, 23, 24 September 2021, 12, 13, 14 January 2022
|Teacher||Alison Hepburn (not present/not represented)|
|Panel||Arthur Stewart (Convener), Gillian Fagan and Marie Lyon|
|Legal Assessor||John Moir|
|Servicing Officer||Aga Adamczyk|
|Presenting Officer||Sarah Donnachie (Anderson Strathern LLP)|
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 Rules 2017 or refers to a provision (or provisions) within them; and
- the ‘Register’ means the GTCS register of teachers.
Prior to hearing submissions on facts, the Teacher applied to the Panel to admit late papers. Having heard from parties and after accepting the advice of the Legal Assessor, the Panel determined that paper A – Copy Statement from Witness 1 to Local Authority dated 3 October 2018 and paper F – Correspondence from HR dated 31 July 2019 were relevant and there was no unfairness in admitting them. Accordingly, the Panel admitted these documents as late papers.
During her evidence, the Teacher navigated to matters relating to her health. The Panel, on its own volition, indicated to the parties that it wished to hear the Teacher’s evidence relating to her health in private. The parties raised no objection. Accordingly, in line with Rule 1.7.3, the Panel ordered, that the Teacher’s evidence relating to her health will be heard in private.
The following allegations were considered at the hearing:
Between on or around 14 September 2018 and on or around 7 February 2019, whilst employed by Aberdeenshire Council as a primary school teacher, and during that employment, the Teacher did:
- On or around 14 September 2018, the Teacher did:
- Forcefully hold the wrist of Pupil A under cold running water, after that child had injured themselves during a classroom activity; and
- Act in a manner which resulted in a flap of loose skin being removed from the hand of Pupil A.
- On or around 27 September 2018, hold Pupil B by the arms and move her to the side.
- On or around 7 February 2019, the Teacher did:
- Grab the wrist of Pupil C, and pull it away from a jar on the table in front of him; and
- Fail to provide adequate care and nurturing support to Pupil D who was crying intermittently for a period of approximately 20 minutes.
The Teacher’s actions at allegation 3 (a) and (b) occurred whilst under a live warning which was imposed in December 2018 following investigation of the actions detailed in allegations 1 and 2.
And in light of the above, it is alleged that the Teacher’s fitness to teach is impaired and the Teacher is unfit to teach as a result of breaching parts 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 1.6 and 2.5 of the GTCS Code of Professionalism and Conduct 2012.
The Teacher denied allegations 1 and 3. The Teacher stated that she may have done what has been alleged under allegation 3; however, she had no recollection of it.
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
1 Notice of the Presenting Officer’s Case Form, dated 22 January 2021
2 Final Investigation Report, dated 25 September 2020, with appendices including:
- Local Authority Investigation Report, dated 13 November 2018 (redacted)
- Local Authority Investigation Report, dated 22 March 2019 (redacted)
- Local Authority Statement of Alison Hepburn (redacted)
- Local Authority Statement of Witness 1 (redacted)
- Local Authority Statement of Pupil B
- Local Authority Statement of Witness 2
- GTC Scotland Statements:
- Signed Statement of Witness 2, dated 4 December 2019
- Signed Statement of Witness 1, dated 1 April 2020
- Signed Statement of Witness 3, dated 12 May 2020
- Signed Statement of Witness 4, dated 27 April 2020
- Signed Statement of Witness 5, dated 21 May 2020
- Notice of Investigation Response Form, dated 5 September 2019
- Interim Report Response, dated 19 July 2020
- Response from Teacher dated 21 October 2020
- Notice of Investigation dated 26 August 2019
3 Notice of Panel Consideration dated 1 October 2020
Teacher’s Hearing Papers
4 Notice of the Teacher’s Case Form, dated 5 February 2021
5 Witness statement from Colleague 1, ex‐HT, dated 31 January 2021
6 Witness statement from Colleague 2, Ex‐PSA, dated 26 January 2021
7 Details of First Aid procedures from NHS and Lothian Health Board websites
8 Copy from MyGTCS archived Personal Learning showing First Aid Training
9 Copy of Fitness to Teach Investigation Notice from Aberdeenshire Council, dated 13 February 2019 and GTC Scotland dated 26th August 2019
10 Copy of Written Warning Disciplinary Letter from Aberdeenshire Council dated 21st December 2018
Servicing Officer’s Hearing Papers
11 Notice of Full Hearing, dated 3 September 2021 with cover email and delivery receipt
12 Email from the Teacher waiving the notice period, dated 2 September 2021
13 Procedural Meeting decision annex, dated 19 May 2021
14 Teacher’s Completed Hearing Response Form, dated 7 September 2021.
Summary of Evidence
Witness 1 had provided a statement to GTC Scotland which was signed and dated 1 April 2020, and she confirmed that what was written in the statement was accurate. At the outset of her evidence, she read aloud her witness statement. She told the Panel that she was observing the Teacher’s class on 7 February 2019 in her role as Quality Improvement Officer (QIO). She told the Panel that she observed Pupil C attempt to put the lid on a jar and saw the Teacher grab him by the wrist and ‘yank’ his hand back. She heard the Teacher say, ‘I told you we were not tidying up just now.’ She told the Panel that she had a good view of them both. Pupil C did not have much of a reaction at all; he was not upset. Witness 1 did not expect teachers to react to pupils in that manner.
She then told the Panel that she observed another pupil, Pupil D, crying. He was sobbing very quietly without any interaction from the Teacher. He was crying quietly, on and off, for the whole 20 minutes when Witness 1 was in the room observing the same lesson. The Teacher told Pupil D to wash his face. Witness 1 stated that she sat next to Pupil D during her observation; however, the children did not know her, so would not necessarily find her presence comforting. She was not introduced to the class by the Teacher. She would have expected a class teacher to comfort the child.
Witness 1 accepted that she did not have any knowledge of the background of either pupil and they were never identified to her at the time. She had hoped to discuss the incidents with the Teacher but there was no time to do so on the day. She accepted that there was a discrepancy in her statements to the Local Authority and GTCS as to whether the Teacher had ‘yanked’ Pupil C’s hand or wrist, but it was the suddenness of the movement that concerned her most. She accepted that she was unaware of any interactions prior to her entering the classroom. She stated that she possibly observed eye contact between the Teacher and Pupil C, but it did not appear to be a jokey situation. Witness 1 did not consider that Pupil D’s situation would have been made better by a new person. She considered that it would have been appropriate for the Teacher to have given her some background in case her presence made him worse.
Witness 2 had provided a statement to GTC Scotland which was signed and dated 4 December 2019, she confirmed that what was written in the statement was accurate. At the outset of her evidence, she read aloud her witness statement. She told the Panel she was the Pupil Support Assistant (PSA) in the Teacher’s class. She told the Panel that on 14 September 2018, Pupil A had put his hand in the air and told her he had hurt his finger. He told Witness 2 that he was not sure what he had done to it, but Witness 2 could see that there was a cut and it was bleeding. It was just a small cut, not much more than a papercut. She had taken Pupil A out into the corridor with the intention of taking him to the bathroom to wash the wound. She met the Teacher there who took over and took Pupil A back to the classroom saying, ‘I have a first aid kit in here.’ She told the Panel that the Teacher was rough with the child and appeared angry. Witness 2 stated that the Teacher had held Pupil A’s hand under the tap until his finger stopped bleeding. Witness 2 stated that the Teacher then pulled off a flap of skin that was on the cut. Pupil A was crying by this point, but the Teacher just said, ‘it has to come off’, and pulled it off. Witness 2 was concerned over the weekend with what she had witnessed and reported matters to the Headteacher, who was Pupil A’s mother, the following week.
Witness 2 accepted that her initial statement to the Local Authority made no mention of bleeding but could not explain this omission. She accepted that neither she nor the Teacher had known the other was first aid trained. She conceded that she had possibly misinterpreted the interaction between the Teacher and Pupil A. She accepted that it was possible that the Teacher was being serious, not angry in her manner toward Pupil A. She recalled the Teacher had told her that Pupil A had said he had cut his finger at home. She accepted that there were inconsistencies between her statement to the Local Authority and her GTCS statement. She could not remember Pupil A’s reaction to having loose skin pulled off. She demonstrated to the Panel that the injury was to the side of his index finger. She had thought that he had perhaps placed it in a pencil sharpener.
Witness 3 had provided a statement to GTC Scotland which was signed and dated 12 May 2019, and he confirmed that what was written in the statement was accurate. At the outset of his evidence, he read aloud his witness statement. He told the Panel that he was the father of Pupil B. Pupil B had told his wife about an incident on 27 September 2018 involving the Teacher taking hold of Pupil B’s arm and moving her out of the way. It was not until Pupil B was interviewed by the Local Authority that the parents, Witness 3 and Witness 5, learned about the background to the situation; 2 or 3 boys in the class were being disruptive and were tearing pages out of a textbook. In finding out more information from Pupil B, it became clear to the parents that the Teacher was just trying to get to the situation at the back of the classroom to defuse it as quickly as possible to stop it from escalating.
Witness 3 stated that he and his wife were happy that what the Teacher did was reasonably justified in the situation. Witness 3 told the Panel that if he and his wife had known the full story from the beginning, they would not have reported it. Witness 3 got the impression from Pupil B that the thing that had upset her the most was that the Teacher did not say ‘excuse me’ to her and did not say ‘sorry’ afterwards. Witness 3 told the Panel that Pupil B loved the Teacher and did not appear to be traumatised by the situation.
Witness 4 had provided a statement to GTC Scotland which was signed and dated 27 April 2020, and she confirmed that what was written in the statement was accurate. At the outset of her evidence, she read aloud her witness statement. She told the Panel she was the Headteacher at the school and the mother of Pupil A. She had become aware of an injury to Pupil A’s hand at lunchtime on 14 September 2018 when she noticed some surgical tape on the inside of the palm of his hand. Witness 4 told the Panel that Pupil A had just said that he had hurt himself. She stated that the Teacher had also told her that Pupil A had hurt his hand and that she had treated it. In the evening, she and her husband had noted that the wound was only covered in surgical tape. She stated that she did not see any loose skin. When she spoke to Pupil A it did not seem like anything major; he was not upset. He just told Witness 4 that he had hurt his palm with a pencil. She was contacted by Witness 2 the following Monday with the allegations about the Teacher. She was concerned as she had understood (incorrectly) that the Teacher had no first aid qualification. As the incident involved her son, it was to be investigated by a headteacher from another school. Within a week she was alerted by a colleague, Colleague 3, to the incident with Pupil B and spoke to the child’s mother, Witness 5, on the phone. After discussion with management, it was decided to suspend the Teacher. After the Teacher returned to work in January 2019, the Teacher was told that over the next few months she would be monitored as this was a condition agreed at the hearing, and also that she would be provided support wherever it was needed. The Teacher had tried to discuss the incident regarding Pupil A with Witness 4, but Witness 4 refused to do so.
When the school was being visited by QIOs on 7 February 2019, Witness 1 reported to her that the Teacher had grabbed one pupil by the wrist, and that another of the pupils had been crying when she was in the class, and the Teacher had not dealt with that. Matters were taken out of Witness 4’s hands at that point and the Teacher was suspended.
She accepted that no formal support was put in place for the Teacher on her return from initial suspension. In hindsight, Witness 4 agreed that she could have done better. She could not remember how pupils C and D were identified.
Witness 5 had provided a statement to GTC Scotland which was signed and dated 21 May 2020, and she confirmed that what was written in the statement was accurate. At the outset of his evidence, she read aloud her witness statement. She told the Panel she was the mother of Pupil B. Pupil B told her what had happened in class and that she had been upset but did not want to cry as her friends were watching. Witness 5 had contacted the school and eventually spoke to Witness 4 on the phone. She did not know anything about the background to what had been happening in class that day at that point. Witness 5 stated that at a later interview after the October break, Pupil B told her about what happened, which included what had been happening in the surrounding environment which triggered the incident. It turned out that a few boys were being disruptive at the back of the classroom. Witness 5 stated that Pupil B told her that the Teacher had taken Pupil B by the arms and moved her gently to the side. Witness 5 told the Panel that once she and her husband had heard the full story, they decided this was absolutely nothing. Witness 5 told the Panel that Pupil A really loved the Teacher. She had not appeared to be traumatised at all.
The Teacher told the Panel that Witness 2 had left the class unattended when she met her with Pupil A in the corridor. The Teacher stated that when Witness 2 had told her of a cut, the Teacher went into ‘first aid mode’ and raised Pupil A’s hand and directed him to the classroom sink where there was cold water available. She then directed Witness 2 to check around Pupil A’s desk for anything sharp whilst she attended to Pupil A at the other side of the classroom. The Teacher stated that she supported, rather than held, Pupil A’s hand under the tap.
She did not observe any blood. The Teacher told the panel that Pupil A had told her that he had injured himself at home. The Teacher told the Panel that she could see some loose skin, like vermicelli pasta. She offered to cut this, but Pupil A was not keen, so she tried her best to tuck the skin under the dressing she applied. She denied taking the loose skin off. She did not pull or rip it. The plaster was reapplied throughout the day after breaks and PE, and Pupil A applied some of the dressings himself. The Teacher told the Panel that Pupil A proudly announced that the loose skin had come off with the plaster when he pulled it at one point.
The Teacher had no recollection of the incident with Pupil B. She was focused on the incident at the back of the class. Two boys were in the process of starting to punch each other. She did not doubt Pupil B’s account. She told the Panel that due to her condition she was not capable of grabbing with her hand. She was unhappy with the word ‘grabbed’ in the warning letter as she had understood that it had been agreed to take that out.
She told the Panel that she denied grabbing Pupil C’s wrist. She had a good relationship with him. She told the Panel that she had been attempting to scoop beads out of his hand which she feared Pupil C would spill all over the floor. The Teacher stated that Pupil C had not been upset and understood that her intention was to avoid a potential ‘tidy up disaster’. Her reaction had been instinctive.
The Teacher told the Panel that Pupil D had special needs which were in the process of being assessed to make a plan. He would frequently become distressed or upset for no discernible reason. When Pupil D was handed over by his PSA, he was hysterical in a way she had not witnessed before. The PSA was unable to stay with him. The Teacher told the Panel that she did not think it was her place to instruct the PSA otherwise. The Teacher stated that she had asked Pupil D if he was in pain or wanted to go home to his childminder. He was not forthcoming. She gave him various options such as going home, sitting next to her, reading in a quiet corner; however, Pupil D told the Teacher that he wanted to join the activity. When he found out it was to be maths next, he wanted to sit with his group. The Teacher stated that the crying had nothing to do with events in class. When Pupil D was handed to her, he was already upset. He came down, de-escalated, and then started again. It was at that point that Witness 1 joined the class. By this time Pupil D was sobbing intermittently. The Teacher was glad that Witness 1 was there. The Teacher instructed Pupil D to wash his face as she wanted to give him an escape from the situation and to clean up before the next activity she knew he enjoyed. She thought she would have done much the same even if Witness 1 had not been there.
Findings of Fact
The Panel gave careful consideration to all of the evidence presented and submissions made by the parties in making its findings of fact on the allegations. It gave careful consideration to the legal advice from the Legal Assessor including the Good Character direction given. the Panel took account of the Practice Statement on Fact-Finding in Fitness to Teach Conduct Cases.
The Panel had in mind that the burden of proof rested on the Presenting Officer and that the standard of proof required is that used in civil proceedings, namely the balance of probabilities.
The Panel firstly considered the reliability and credibility of the witnesses who had given oral evidence at the Full Hearing. The Panel was satisfied that all witnesses were doing their best to tell the truth and had no doubts about their credibility.
However, the Panel was concerned with the substantial discrepancies between the evidence of Witness 2’s initial statement to the Local Authority, her GTCS statement and her oral evidence. In particular, she alone insisted that Pupil A had cut his finger, whereas all other witnesses spoke to an injury to Pupil A’s palm. Accordingly, the Panel did not consider her evidence to be reliable.
The Panel noted that the Teacher appeared to occasionally embellish her evidence. Where her evidence was in conflict with other evidence, the Panel felt it could place less weight upon her evidence.
The Panel considered each allegation separately.
1. On or around 14 September 2018, the Teacher did:
a. Forcefully hold the wrist of Pupil A under cold running water, after that child had injured
themselves during a classroom activity;
The Panel firstly considered that there was insufficient evidence that Pupil A had been injured during a classroom activity. It was satisfied that the Teacher was doing her best to provide first aid to Pupil A. There was insufficient reliable evidence that his hand was forcefully held under the water. Accordingly, this allegation is found not proved.
b. Act in a manner which resulted in a flap of loose skin being removed from the hand of
The Panel was not satisfied that there was reliable evidence that the Teacher’s actions resulted in loose skin being removed. Pupil A made no mention of this to his parents, and he did not seem to be concerned about the incident. The Panel also noted that the Teacher did not apply all the dressings throughout the day. Accordingly, this allegation is found not proved.
2. On or around 27 September 2018, hold Pupil B by the arms and move her to the side.
The Panel noted that the Teacher had no specific recollection of this event, being more concerned about the need to address disruption elsewhere in the classroom. She did not doubt Pupil B’s account. The Panel was not satisfied that there was sufficient clarity in Pupil B’s hearsay account to meet the whole allegation. It was minded, in line with Rule 2.8.4, to indicate to parties that it proposed amending the allegation to read “On or around 27 September 2018, physically move Pupil B to the side”.
3. On or around 7 February 2019, the Teacher did:
a. Grab the wrist of Pupil C, and pull it away from a jar on the table in front of him;
The Panel noted that Witness 1 and the Teacher were in direct contradiction as regards this incident. It considered Witness 1 to be an uninterested observer who had no motivation to lie. She was concerned by what she observed which she insisted was a yanking movement. The Teacher’s account given to the Panel appeared to be too detailed whereas, in her statement to the Local Authority, the Teacher had stated that she did not recall the exact motions towards the pupil. Further to this, the Teacher had produced no medical evidence to back up her account of not being physically able to grab, therefore, the Panel could not attach significant weight to the Teacher’s evidence. The Panel preferred the evidence of Witness 1. Accordingly, this allegation is found proved.
b. Fail to provide adequate care and nurturing support to Pupil D who was crying intermittently for a period of approximately 20 minutes
The Panel noted that Witness 1 was not appraised of all the circumstances. Nevertheless, she was concerned by what she observed. The Panel noted that the Teacher appeared to be following an accepted practice in the school from the previous Headteacher and that there was at the time no educational plan for Pupil D. Nevertheless, it considered that leaving the child crying for a period of up to 20 minutes was unacceptable. It was neglectful. Accordingly, this allegation was found proved.
Prior to announcing their decision on facts, the Panel invited submissions from parties on the proposed amendment to allegation 2. Parties had no objection. Accordingly, the Panel amended allegation 2 to read as follows, “On or around 27 September 2018, physically move Pupil B to the side”.
The Panel announced that allegation 1 in both parts was not proved. Allegation 2, as amended, was found proved and allegations 3 (a) and (b) were found proved.
Findings on Fitness to Teach
Given that the Panel found that some of the allegations were proved, the Panel invited the parties to lead evidence and make submissions in relation to the Teacher’s fitness to teach.
The Panel gave careful consideration to all of the submissions made by the parties in relation to the Teacher’s fitness to teach. The Panel addressed the relevant considerations in relation to fitness to teach, as outlined in the GTCS Indicative Outcomes Guidance (IOG).
a. Did the Teacher’s conduct or competence at the time of the incident(s) fall short of the expected professional standards? i.e. has the Teacher been guilty of misconduct or lack of competence?
The Panel determined that the Teacher had breached parts 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 1.6 and 2.5 of the GTCS Code of Professionalism and Conduct 2012 (COPC) and that she was guilty of misconduct.
1.2 you must maintain appropriate professional boundaries, avoid improper contact or relationships with pupils and respect your unique position of trust as a teacher;
1.3you should avoid situations both within and outwith the professional context which could be in breach of the criminal law, or may call into question your fitness to teach;
1.4 you must uphold standards of personal and professional conduct, honesty and integrity so that the public have confidence in you as a teacher and teaching as a profession;
1.6 you should maintain an awareness that as a teacher you are a role model to pupils.
2.5 as a member of the children’s workforce in Scotland, you should recognise your role as a professional in delivering better outcomes for children and young people
b. The Panel then asked itself whether the shortfalls identified were remediable, have they been remedied and is there a likelihood of reoccurrence?
The Panel considered that whilst the shortfalls identified were at the lower end of the spectrum and were capable of being remedied, it was concerned that the Teacher considered that she had not done anything wrong and had expressed no remorse.
The Panel further noted that the Teacher had retired on ill-health grounds during the Local Authority investigation, therefore, she had not had the opportunity to remediate in a classroom environment.
In terms of the likelihood of reoccurrence, the Teacher had assured the Panel that she had no intention to return to teaching. However, the Panel noted that were she to be allowed to retain her registration, there would be nothing stopping her from applying for teaching posts.
c. The Panel considered whether a finding of impairment or that the Teacher is unfit to teach in is required in the public interest.
The Panel did not consider that a finding that the Teacher is unfit to teach was required in the public interest. The Panel was of the view that the allegations were at the lower end of the spectrum. Further to this, prior to the events under consideration, the Teacher had 38 years of an unblemished teaching career.
Accordingly, for the reasons set out above, the Panel determined that the Teacher’s conduct falls short of the standards expected of a registered teacher and that her fitness to teach is therefore currently impaired. The Panel gave serious consideration as to whether her conduct fell significantly short such that she was unfit to teach, but did not consider such a finding was justified particularly in light of the lack of support provided to the Teacher following her return to school, and lack of agreed policies and child-centred planning in place for Pupil D.
Having found her fitness to teach impaired, the Panel went on to hear submissions from the parties and legal advice as to the disposals available to it.
The Presenting Officer invited the Panel to consider all the options set out in the IOG. She submitted, however, that a Reprimand may not be sufficient given the lack of insight and remorse, and multiple breaches of COPAC.
The Teacher did not indicate what option she would be inviting the Panel to take with regard to the disposal options set out in the IOG. The Teacher focused on her voluntary career and expressed the desire to return to it. She further stated that if she found herself in similar situations in the future, she would do the same again.
The Panel gave careful consideration to these submissions in considering the disposals available to it in order of least to greatest severity (Giele v GMC).
The Panel considered that a Reprimand was insufficient to meet the concerns and shortfalls identified in the Teacher’s practice. There had been no insight, remorse or remediation.
Conditional Registration Order (CRO)
The Panel for similar reasons considered that such an order was not appropriate. The Panel noted that the Teacher was not currently employed. She has further stated that she had no intention of going back to classroom teaching. Moreover, in light of the Teacher’s submissions that if she found herself in similar situations in the future, she would take the same course of action, the Panel was of the view that there was no workable condition that it could impose in the particular set of circumstances. It noted, with regret, that in this case, in order to limit the risk of repetition and ensure public protection, the Teacher needed time to reflect on her conduct and attitude. In light of the continued lack of insight and remorse, the Panel could not identify a CRO that would be workable, measurable and practicable in the specific set of circumstances of this case.
Conditional Registration Order and Reprimand
For similar reasons, the Panel considered that a joint CRO and Reprimand was insufficient.
The Panel determined, with regret, that the only option available to it was that of Removal. Accordingly, the Panel directed that the Teacher’s name be removed from the Register.
Once the Teacher’s name has been removed from the Register, her name remains so removed unless and until an application for re-registration is made by her and a Fitness to Teach Panel directs that the application be granted. The Panel directed that the Teacher should be prohibited from making an application for re-registration for a period of six months from the date of its decision. The Panel considered that a longer time period was inappropriate in the circumstances.
The Teacher has the right to appeal to the Court of Session against the decision within 28 days of service of the Decision Notice. The Teacher’s name will remain on the Register until the appeal period has expired and any appeal lodged within that period has been determined.