Head teacher wins £100,000 over sacking for ‘assault’ by tapping toddler’s hand

Shelly-Ann Malabver-Goulbourne was the head of Northwold Primary School in Hackney, which is run by the Arbor Academy Trust (Picture: Leon McGowran)

A primary school head teacher sacked for ‘assault’ after tapping her toddler’s hand while he played with a bottle of hand sanitiser has been awarded more than £100,000.

Shelly-Ann Malabver-Goulbourne used two fingers to get her three-year-old son’s attention while trying to stop him fiddling with the gel in her office at the east London primary school.

The interaction was witnessed by the school’s safeguarding lead who filed an official complaint, leading to Ms Malabver-Goulbourne’s suspension and the police being called.

And despite officers deeming it ‘reasonable chastisement’ by a parent, the 46-year-old lost her job after being found guilty of gross misconduct.

However, that dismissal has now been ruled unfair by an employment judge who awarded Ms Malabver-Goulbourne £102,328 in compensation.

Ms Malabver-Goulbourne was the head of Northwold Primary School in Hackney, which is run by the Arbor Academy Trust.

The hearing was told she had been a teacher for ‘many years’, joining the trust in 2005 and serving as head since 2017.

She was working late in her office when the incident occurred on January 17, 2022.

While packing up her things following a meeting with the safeguarding lead, her 11-year-old daughter told her that her younger brother had squirted sanitiser on the floor.

After taking the bottle from him, Employment Judge Julia Jones said, the head teacher likely ‘bent down to his level to speak to him about why he should not be playing with hand sanitiser’.

She added: ‘When she did so he turned his face away from her and she tapped him with two fingers on the back of his hand to get his attention, so that he would look at her to hear what she was saying.’

The tribunal heard the incident came two weeks after the boy got hand sanitiser in his eye.

‘It was with the knowledge of that earlier experience that she wanted to speak to him again to ensure that he understood that hand sanitiser was not a toy that he should be playing with,’ the judge said.

Ms MalabverGoulbourne defended herself by claiming that her actions were designed to get her son’s attention and not to hurt him (Picture: Shutterstock/Maridav)

When interviewed as part of the investigation, the safeguarding lead accused her of hurting her child and likened the incident to a form of corporal punishment.

Ms MalabverGoulbourne defended herself by claiming that her actions were designed to get her son’s attention and not to hurt him.

‘She described this action as meaning, “Look at me when I am talking to you, focus on me and what I am saying” as he looked away when she was talking to him,’ the panel heard.

‘[She said] that her son had not cried from her tapping the top of his hand, he started whining because she took the bottle away from him. She had not done it in anger or as a punishment.

‘She tapped him on the top of his hand to get his attention to explain to him the danger of playing with hand sanitiser as she was worried about what could happen to him. She was clear that she had not smacked him.’

In May 2022, the trust sacked Ms MalabverGoulbourne for gross misconduct.

‘The Trust expressly forbids any physical chastisement or contact of any kind,’ she was told.

‘Therefore, whether a tap or otherwise, this was unnecessary physical contact with a pupil, which constitutes an assault, and therefore a breach of policies and statutory guidance.’

However, the judge said that the school’s code of conduct does not prohibit all physical contact between pupils and teachers and pointed out that as a parent of pupils that would be a difficult rule for the head teacher to abide by.

Upholding her claim for unfair dismissal, EJ Jones said: ‘It is this Tribunal’s judgement that [the Trust] had sufficient evidence…that she was trying to prevent injury to her child and addressing his behaviour.

‘There was no evidence that she had committed physical chastisement or an assault.’

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