Michaela Community School has described an employment claim against it as a “waste of taxpayers’ money” after a tribunal rejected allegations it racially discriminated against a former employee.
The free school in Wembley, north London, says it is seeking to claim costs against its former receptionist after an employment tribunal ruled in its favour.
Yuri Gonzalez accused Katharine Birbalsingh (pictured), Michaela’s headteacher, and Barry Smith, its former deputy head, of discriminating against her because she was Colombian. She claimed that she was told that her English was not good enough and that she should not speak like “the wife of a gangster”.
However, lawyers for the school denied discrimination against Gonzalez, who worked at the school, dubbed Britain’s strictest, from January 2015 until she was dismissed in October 2016.
Instead, the school accused the former receptionist of making mistakes, poor time-keeping and dressing inappropriately, as well as taking £470 of uniform money after she was fired. Gonzalez denied these allegations.
After the hearing, a spokesperson for the school said it had been an “absurd case for discrimination”.
This process has been a waste of taxpayers’ money that should have gone on children’s education
“This process has been a waste of taxpayers’ money that should have gone on children’s education. Our lawyers are now actively seeking costs against Yuri Gonzalez in bringing this groundless claim, as well as money she owes the school.”
The school would not confirm the cost of legal fees or how much it was seeking from Gonzalez.
Gonzalez did not respond to a request for comment.
On May 7, Gonzalez told the tribunal hearing in Watford that she felt “really bad” when Birbalsingh told her she “talked like the wife of a gangster”.
However, in a witness statement Birbalsingh said she was concerned about all staff “not dressing like wives of gangsters”, as she worried it would be “inspiring” pupils to “do exactly the opposite of what the school is trying to do for them”.
Peter Edwards, who represented Michaela, said the school was “in an inner city London area that has a big problem with gang culture” and the school had a “particular emphasis on discipline”.
“The school has high standards so far as the staff are concerned, so far as they dress and the language they use, and the way they interact with pupils and other members of staff,” he said.
Smith told the tribunal that Gonzalez had been hired as an act of kindness when the school discovered she and her daughter would be moved out of London by the local council unless she got a job.
He said: “Katharine [Birbalsingh] decided it’s not exactly what we are looking for in terms of an employee, but it would keep [her daughter] in school and we really wanted [her daughter] in school.”
Although Gonzalez accused Birbalsingh and Smith of repeatedly saying her English was not good enough, including recommending she should listen to Radio 4 to sound “more posh”, she conceded she initially took the comments to be “constructive” and Smith told her she was “doing a very good job”.
However, she was dismissed for gross misconduct in October 2016. Two months earlier, the school alleged that she sent a draft and unapproved letter to the wrong parents, in Smith’s name, saying that their children would be put in isolation at lunch if they did not pay for their meals on time. The letter created a media storm around the school.
Louise Rea, a senior associate at the law firm Bates Wells Braithwaite, told Schools Week that it was important for schools to open dialogue with employees as soon as they could. It was difficult to recoup costs after a tribunal, which could cost tens of thousands of pounds.
They should instead try to invest in human resources and ensure they had “really robust processes in place” for dealing with grievances, including documenting as much as possible.
Watford Employment Tribunal said the written judgment would be published within ten working days.