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Protest at school gates in support of suspended teacher 07/09/2007

Following a call by the campaign group Civil Liberty with backing from Solidarity, the British Workers’ Union; Mark Walker began to gather outside the gates of the Sunnydale school from 8:00am. The popular teacher, who has taught in Sunnydale for the past eight years, attracted support from local parents, pupils and ex-pupils at the school. As this was the first day of the new term, only the new intake of year seven pupils came to school at ten o’clock. The demonstration was deliberately kept low key. It was a Monday morning and many other potential supporters were at work. Twenty supporters turned up around 8:00am. As the morning progressed, the number of supporters grew to approximately one hundred.

The local police kept a low profile. Two constables kept a professional but relaxed eye on the proceedings. As the numbers of supporters grew, another two constables turned up. At the police’s request, Mark’s supporters quietened down around 10:00am when the new intake of first year pupils began to arrive. Naturally Civil Liberty and Solidarity were happy to co-operate with reasonable requests from the police.

Mark Walker’s meeting with the School Head, Sue Byrne, was scheduled to begin at one o’clock. As Mark Walker and his union representative, Patrick Harrington arrived at the school gates a big cheer rose from the crowd. There were backslaps for Mark and Patrick as they were greeted by a chorus of whistles, airhorns and bells. Three cheers were called for Mark to unanimous approval from the crowd. He was presented with a bouquet of flowers from a well-wisher in he crowd.

Mark Walker spoke through a megaphone to thank everyone gathered there for their magnificent support. Patrick Harrington told the crowd that he hoped for an amicable solution. The school’s function was to educate the community and improve its results. He and Mark were going into the meeting with Ms Byrne in a hopeful mood.

After an unexplained delay and a brusque reception the two men were ushered in to a meeting with Sue Byrne and Mark’s Team Leader. At the outset Patrick Harrington questioned Ms Byrne’s impartiality in dealing with Mark Walker’s case as he had launched a grievance procedure against her for her handling of his case. He urged her to delegate her role in this meeting to another senior member of staff given the conflict of interest and likelihood of prejudicing the case in hand. Her only response was ‘Why should I?’ The meeting then went ahead under Ms Byrne.

The Solidarity union representative gave Ms Byrne a list of around twenty questions which she said she would answer at the end of the meeting. She wanted to press ahead with her own points first.

Ms Byrne then produced a series of documents that had not previously been disclosed to Mark or his Solidarity union representative prior to the meeting. She raised new points unrelated to the allegations that Mark and his representative had been notified of and had come prepared to answer. Patrick Harrington accused her of underhand ambush tactics. Ms Byrne had gone outside recognised procedure. He advised Mark not to answer any questions raised on these newly produced issues.

Patrick raised his concerns to Ms Byrne regarding Mark’s mental wellbeing given the severe stress that she had put him under. She sat stoney-faced and unresponsive to this appeal to her better nature.

Patrick accused her of having a lack of respect for Mark’s union, Solidarity. She went into a long diversion telling the two men that they should not speak to the press. This was rich, given that she had herself spoken to the local Sunday Sun the previous day. Patrick told there that he would speak to whoever he liked without seeking permission from Ms Byrne as was his right under Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. She had permitted a meeting to take place on the school premises to call for Mark Walker to be sacked. She had allowed a rumour mill to get under way with a number of false allegations against Mark Walker. She had been quoted in the previous day’s Sunday Sun that it was ‘utterly false’ to suggest that Mark was being picked on because of his political affiliations. Nevertheless she had questioned Mark about his candidacy for the British National Party in the last local government election. At this meeting Patrick noticed that she had a copy of Mark’s BNP election address in the file on the desk in front of her.

Ms Byrne then cut the meeting short by announcing that she had made a decision. She would refer the case to the School governors. She would be recommending that the governors take disciplinary action against Mark Walker for ‘gross misconduct’ (a sacking offence). The union representative asked her if this meant that the meeting was over and if she had made a decision. She replied it did.

Patrick reminded Ms Byrne that she had not answered his questions and representations prior to making this decision. She offered to answer them at this late stage but Patrick told her that this was farcical. It was too late now as she had already announced her decision. He asked, ‘What kind of a process is this we’re involved in?’ The two men left the meeting in disgust at this arrogant demonstration of high-handedness and pettiness. Ms Byrne failed to conduct a full and fair investigation despite having since March to do so and calling no fewer than three ‘investigatory’ meetings.


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