A former headteacher avoided a teaching ban for “dishonestly” backdating a risk assessment because she was under “a lot of stress and pressure” ahead of an inspection.
A Teaching Regulation Agency panel found Catherina Rowsell-Dickens, former head of Wapping High School, guilty of unacceptable professional conduct following the incident.
She began working at the newly established east London secondary in 2013. But she resigned four years later after a series of allegations prompted a school investigation.
Governors decided claims did not warrant referral to the TRA, but it launched its own probe after a “third party” reported her.
Rowsell-Dickens admitted to backdating a risk assessment over a new hire, when she realised it had not been completed at the time of interview. The TRA had received a covert recording of her discussing the issue with her personal assistant, who flagged the gaps.
The panel said the misconduct finding was “serious” as it involved dishonesty.
But it dismissed a claim she “falsified” information, saying she was simply “trying to recall” the individual’s interview answers when filling in the form.
Ex-head under ‘a lot of stress and pressure’
The TRA ruling found there was “clear evidence she was under a lot of stress and pressure”, with an inspection pending at a new school facing multiple challenges.
Her actions involved “supporting a colleague…as a way of protecting the staff and school”, and she described having “panicked”.
The TRA’s report refers to a “pending Ofsted inspection”, but the head said it was a Department for Education monitoring visit.
Such visits before schools’ first Ofsted inspections are a little-publicised feature of the free school system. Reports are not published, though in 2014 it emerged one Suffolk school was praised shortly before Ofsted graded it “inadequate”.
Wapping High was rated “requires improvement” in 2014 and 2016. It improved to “good” in 2018 under a new head, the school said in a statement.
The panel said Rowsell-Dickens subsequently showed remorse over the “out of character” incident.
A government official, who rules on misconduct on ministers’ behalf, accepted the TRA panel’s verdict that a ban was “not proportionate”, citing the circumstances and “less serious” nature of the incident.
The TRA panel also cleared her of alleged failure to act on a colleague’s safeguarding concerns over a pupil who stopped attending, or to report absence quickly enough to the council.
A witness claimed they raised concerns the pupil was at risk of female genital mutilation, but the panel accepted Rowsell-Dickens’ denial – and said no other staff raised concerns. While the witness’s evidence was “inconsistent”, the head’s evidence was “credible”.
Former head ‘relieved’
Rowsell-Dickens told Schools Week she was “relieved” allegations were not proved beyond the backdated document, involving an overseas teacher she already knew. “I will always regret this momentary misjudgment,” she added.
She was also “incredibly disappointed” her case had taken so long to resolve. She did not say if she had worked subsequently, but added in a statement: “I feel I have lost four years of my professional life.”
A Schools Week investigation last year highlighted lengthy waits for TRA investigations to conclude, even before Covid.
Julie McCulloch, policy director at school leaders’ union ASCL, said: “While there is never any excuse for unacceptable professional conduct, it is a sign of the intense pressure placed upon school leaders by inspections and monitoring visits that the TRA panel specifically noted this factor in its findings.”
Scrutiny is important, but the inspection system “feels far too harsh”, she added.
The DfE was approached for comment.