United Learning trust sued for defamation over investigation report

Former associate head files claim in the High Court

Former associate head files claim in the High Court

A former senior staff member at Holland Park School is suing the country’s largest trust for up to £70,000, claiming an investigation into the academy’s alleged “toxic” culture defamed him.

Nicholas Robson, a former associate headteacher at the west London secondary, has filed the claim at the High Court, show documents seen by Schools Week.

He alleges the independent investigation, which uncovered sexism, racism and the public humiliation of pupils, is libellous.

The investigation was carried out by governors parachuted in by the government after claims from Holland Park pupils of a “toxic” environment at the school, once dubbed the “socialist Eton”.

It was published on Holland Park’s website in May last year while it was still a single-academy trust. United Learning took over the school seven months later following an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted rating.

But Robson, whose legal costs are covered by the National Education Union, wants an injunction stopping the 85-school trust “from permitting to be published” the “defamatory” statements.

A spokesperson for United Learning said it would be “inappropriate to comment” because of the “ongoing nature of this case… But, suffice to say, we will be contesting it in full and are confident of our position.”

The investigation found safeguarding failures at the secondary, including the “inappropriate” handling of a teacher’s relationship with a pupil.

Summary and statement at heart of claim

Meanwhile, Ofsted officials were said to have been “misled”, with staff questionnaires relating to a visit in January 2020 “destroyed at the instigation of some senior leaders”. Certain children were also taken offsite during inspections.

Jessica Joels, who carried out the inquiry, said there was “overt” sexism, Islamophobia and racism at the school, with a “culture of fear, favouritism and inequality”.

The investigation covered events dating back as far as 2004, at which point the school was under local authority control.

Instead of publishing the 554-page report in full, Holland Park opted to release a summary of its findings “to protect the identities of staff and students who gave evidence”. It also released a statement from its board of governors.

The releases – which both still sit on the school’s website – are at the centre of Robson’s claim.

Papers submitted to the High Court show he had demanded “damages, including aggravated damages, for libel arising” from them.

He also argued private information had been “processed” and misused in the reports, neither of which name him. His submission claim form said this was a breach of his privacy under the European Convention on Human Rights.

If the court rules in his favour, United will also be made to publish “a summary of the final [court] judgment”.

Privilege hinges on ‘duty to publish’

There are four main defences to defamation: truth, honest opinion, publication of a matter of public interest and privilege.

Defamation expert Daniel Jennings, a partner at Shakespeare Martineau, said qualified privilege could be a successful defence in such investigation report cases if “a duty to publish” the information could be demonstrated.

“You then have to look at what’s the underlying subject matter – is it serious enough to warrant overriding the individual’s interest? And the publication can’t be excessive [in terms who they were publishing it to].”

However, he said it might be “slightly more difficult” to extend this defence to the governors’ statement. “A commentary on the report is one step away from [the material] they had to publish.”

Antony Power, a partner at PHP Law, said issues around publishing material of this kind was “something we wrestle with clients [about] all the time”.

The “safest option” was to keep [investigation documents] internally.

NEU ‘awaiting formal written evidence’

The case is also an interesting example of the liabilities that trusts inherit when taking over schools. But Power added that proving United Learning had “responsibility for the claim” might be a “significant hurdle to clear”.

Before Joels’ investigation, the government told Holland Park to rein in the salaries of its leaders.

Colin Hall, the former head, was at the time the fourth best-paid academy boss in the country, despite running one school. His wages were at least £280,000 in 2022 – a rise of £100,000 since 2013-14.

Robson appears to be listed as third-in-command on the former trust’s annual accounts. The third highest salary listed in the 2022 accounts was at least £160,000.

The NEU said it was “awaiting the formal written defence of the other side. We will not be commenting at this stage.”

It said covering the legal costs was “in line with our arrangements when we act in legal cases for our members”.

The union also backed a failed high court bid by Holland Park parents to stop the school joining United Learning after Ofsted rated it ‘inadequate’.

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