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Education officer rebuked by judge

AN education officer has been rebuked for his evidence to an employment tribunal in which a teacher was awarded £28,000 for disability discrimination.

CLOSED: The Fife primary school where Shauna Shields previously worked.
CLOSED: The Fife primary school where Shauna Shields previously worked.

John McLaughlin, an area education officer for Fife Council, was described as evasive and accused of lacking credibility by an employment judge.

He had been giving evidence in the case of primary teacher Shauna Shields, an ME sufferer, who successfully sued the council after it failed to give her a role that would take account of her illness.

Ms Shields wanted to be given a role as a learning support teacher, allowing her to work with smaller groups of children, but the council refused her request.

Mr McLaughlin told the tribunal the council had no such posts ­available and was not advertising them. But Judge Ian McFatridge was shown evidence of three such posts that were being advertised at the time of the hearing.

The judge said: "The tribunal were less satisfied with the evidence of Mr McLaughlin.

"Mr McLaughlin dealt with cross-examination in areas where he was uncomfortable by simply refusing to answer the question he was asked. The tribunal felt that on occasions he was evasive.

"His credibility was not assisted when he gave clear and unequivocal evidence to the effect [the council] were not advertising posts in Learning Support, only to be forced (eventually) to admit the genuineness of documents ... which clearly showed that whilst Mr McLaughlin was denying it in the tribunal, [the council] were in fact advertising these posts on their website."

Ms Shields, an employee with the council since 1982, was diagnosed with ME in 2002. She worked at various schools for the authority before being placed at New Gilston Primary, Largo, which had a roll of just six pupils.

However, following a period of absence by Ms Shields the pupils were transferred to other schools, with New Gilston eventually closing in late 2012.

The teacher met Mr ­McLaughlin in December that year, only to be told "the council could place her in any classroom post it wished".

The judgment also stated: "He mentioned a school in a deprived area which had a reputation as being particularly rough and asked [Ms Shields] how long she thought she would last if he placed her there."

On June 17 last year, Ms Shields and her GP made the council aware she was fit to return to work. However, no suitable post was found for her, leaving her without wages for 10 months. She was also unable to claim benefits because she was still technically employed.

Following her pleas for a learning support role, Mr McLaughlin sought an occupational health assessment of Ms Shields. However, he was criticised for adding his own handwritten notes to an official job specification for the role.

The judgment said: "We found Mr McLaughlin's action in personally amending the job specification which was finally sent to the occupational health department fairly unedifying.

"It was clear to us that Mr McLaughlin was hoping if he altered the job specification in this way the occupational health doctor would come back and advise that [Ms Shields] could not do the role."

Ms Shields was awarded £22,397.28 for wage losses and a further £6000 for injury to feelings. At the end of the tribunal, she remained an employee of the council with no post to go to.

Sharon McKenzie, head of personnel for Fife Council, said: "The council is looking at the findings and will take account of them. We will look at our practice with regard to reasonable adjustments to see if there is anything we can do differently and better. We will investigate all of the circumstances of this case including any criticism of our approach. However, we never discuss individual circumstances of either former or current employees."

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