Head accused of 'Islamophobia' wins £400,000
Date: 20 Mar 2009
Head accused of 'Islamophobia' wins £400,000 after being forced out by Muslim governors By Andy Dolan, Matt Sandy and Nick Mcdermott
Last updated at 11:20 PM on 19th March 2009
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Breakdown: Erica Connor claimed she was forced to retire through ill health after a campaign of harassment by some of the governors
A headmistress who was hounded out of her job after being falsely accused of racism was yesterday awarded more than £400,000 in compensation.
Erica Connor had run a 'happy and successful' primary school but was driven to a breakdown by the allegations.
The Daily Mail can reveal the school's troubles started when a local mosque decided to pack the governing body with Muslims.
Paul Martin - a Muslim convert - and Mumtaz Saleem began monopolising meetings with the aim of turning New Monument in Woking into an Islamic faith school.
The Surrey town is home to the first purpose-built mosque in the country - the Shah Jahan Mosque - which dates from 1889.
Mr Martin, a businessman, yesterday confirmed there had been a 'conscious effort' to increase the number of Muslims on the board.
But when Mrs Connor resisted the new governors' plans - such as the introduction of Islamic worship into the school - she became the target of a smear campaign.
An anonymous petition was circulated among parents, stating that those signing 'no longer have confidence in Erica Connor to educate our children in a way that respects and values our faith, culture and heritage'.
An accompanying document accused the headmistress of 'racism and Islamophobia'.
The accusations drove her to suffer from depression.
She eventually retired from the 300-pupil school because of illhealth in December 2006.
She is unlikely ever to return to teaching and now does voluntary work for a cancer charity.
A judge at the Royal Courts of Justice in London yesterday ordered Surrey County Council to pay Mrs Connor £407,781 in compensation.
He ruled that the local education authority had failed to support her properly against the unfounded accusations.
Deputy Judge John Leighton Williams said the council disregarded the 'health and welfare' of Mrs Connor because it was more concerned about being reported to the Commission for Racial Equality.
Erica Connor was headteacher of New Monument School in Woking (pictured) where 80 per cent of pupils are Muslim. She claimed she was forced to retire through ill health after a campaign of harrassment
After the case, Mrs Connor said the allegations 'attacked the core of my being and my values'.
She accused the council of cownorardice for failing to stand by her while the non-demoninational primary school - where around 80 per cent of the pupils are Muslim - was torn apart by the split in the governing body.
She had told the court earlier: 'I felt the LEA, because of the political sensitivity of the issue, were not addressing it.
'I felt - I will be honest - that this was racism towards me, because I felt that, had I been a Muslim head, things would have been conducted in a different way.
'I felt that they didn't have the courage to stand by me in this.' The divorced mother of one was made headmistress in 1998 after joining the school four years earlier as the deputy head.
In 2001 she was invited to a Downing Street reception after the school was named the second most improved in the country for SATs results.
Her problems started in 2003 when four Muslim governors, including Mr Martin, joined the board. He was appointed as a parent-governor, despite having no children at the school.
'It was tense': Paul Martin at home in Woking, Surrey
Shortly afterwards, Mr Saleem joined as one of two LEA-appointed Muslim governors.
Mr Martin also nominated another Muslim as parent-governor - Sofia Syed, who also had no prior connection to the school.
Over the next two years Mrs Connor believed the governing body became 'dysfunctional' because of the conduct of Mr Martin and Mr Saleem, the court heard.
In her witness statement, Mrs Connor said they 'effectively railroaded' meetings, repeatedly raising issues of religious education, content of assemblies and religious worship.
They wanted more formal Islamic worship in the school and closer links with the local mosque.
From late 2003, Mr Martin, now 58, repeatedly complained about the school's policies and its stance towards Islam, as well as its links with the Muslim community and Mrs Connor's management.
His complaints resulted in an investigation. Its report acquitted the school of racism, Islamophobia and religious bias.
Mr Martin was finally voted off the governing body in June 2005. He complained that he had been 'removed for blowing the whistle on institutional racism'.
The council wrote to parents saying it had no evidence that the allegations were true and reiterated the results of the investigation.
But at the start of the following school term in September, a second investigation - this time at the instigation of the council - concluded the school 'had not been responsive to the needs of the faith community'.
Mrs Connor went on sick leave suffering from stress and depression soon afterwards.
By then, the entire governing body had been disbanded. The following year the school was put in special measures by Ofsted.
Mrs Connor did not sue Mr Martin or Mr Saleem, but claimed that Mr Saleem had harassed her.
Judge Williams cleared him of harassment, but ruled that he had been guilty of 'offensive verbal attacks' towards Mrs Connor.
The judge said of the two governors: 'I am satisfied that they sought to monopolise governing body meetings with a view to imposing their own agenda, and were prepared to do so regardless of the interests of the school and anyone who resisted that agenda.
'What was that agenda? It was at the very least to introduce an increasing role for the Muslim religion in New Monument School.'
The judge added that it was also 'not unreasonable' for Mrs Connor and the school's staff 'to consider that there was an agenda to convert New Monument to an Islamic faith school'.
The judge said the council's 'excessive tolerance' of the Muslim governors' behaviour, its 'misplaced sympathy' for Mr Martin - and its failure to provide Mrs Connor with proper support were the reasons for her depression.
Last night, Mr Martin said that he and other governors had simply lobbied for an increase in the number of Islamic assemblies.
He said: 'There were many Muslims in the school and they should be properly represented. It is only fair and democratic.'
Mr Martin, who converted to Islam 28 years ago and was treasurer of the mosque, said he thought Mrs Connor 'became very defensive and it got very tense'.
Mrs Connor, who is believed to live with her partner Neil in Skenfrith, near Abergavenny in South Wales, said after the ruling she was 'thrilled that justice has prevailed'.
She added: 'I finally feel vindicated. I was subjected to dreadful pressures from a small group of individuals, unrepresentative of the local community, without the support I would have expected from Surrey County Council.'
Her damages claim covered sums for her pain and suffering and loss of income and pension.
A Surrey County Council spokesman said the authority was 'disappointed' with the decision
The council was refused permission to appeal, but could take the case to the Court of Appeal.