A university academic accused of “colluding” with Buckinghamshire grammar schools to “skew” 11-Plus testing data was wrongly suspended, an employment tribunal has ruled.

Dr Sue Stothard set 11-Plus test questions in her role at Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) – the body that runs exams for grammar schools in England.

But on September 27, 2018, The Buckinghamshire Grammar Schools (TBGS), which looks after the county’s 13 grammar schools, received an email from education magazine TES about a story alleging TBGS had been illegally marking admission tests differently to favour pupils who lived in the county – a claim it strenuously denied.

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Before this, TBGS had been facing an issue that out-of-county children were generally scoring higher than in-county children on the admission tests – and fewer local children were meeting the required pass mark.

To counter this, a discussion paper on “alternative selection approaches” was produced, and although it was considered at a TBGS meeting, none of the suggestions were adopted and Dr Stothard had “no part” in producing it.

Instead, TBGS decided to increase the number of candidates achieving the required score so the schools could then select from the higher number of pupils based on other criteria such as proximity, siblings, or whether they were looked-after children – with the aim of offering more places to in-county children.

The employment tribunal documents stated there is “nothing unlawful about favouring in-county children in that way”.

After TBGS received the email from TES claiming they had been “secretly operating an illegal policy of marking admission tests differently for children living outside the county”, it was forwarded onto Dr Stothard, with a request that if CEM were contacted about the story, they let TGBS know.

Dr Stothard forwarded the email to the CEM senior leadership and discussions ensued. However within two hours, executive director of CEM, Emma Beatty, contacted their legal officer to say she had investigated the question in the TES article and “had concerns”.

At a meeting on September 28 that did not involve Dr Stothard, Ms Beatty said that, after preliminary investigations, she was concerned that employees within CEM had “potentially been knowingly involved in manipulating the entrance test results to favour in-county applications”.

After this, Dr Stothard, and a CEM statistician for TBGS – named in court documents as ‘G’ – were both suspended while investigations were carried out.

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On October 12, Dr Stothard raised a formal grievance, saying the TES article did not name CEM and that the suspension was a “knee-jerk reaction without any evidence”.

Dr Stothard’s suspension was lifted on November 7 after the investigation, but “work-related stress” had caused her a flare-up of colitis, meaning she was declared too sick to work until November 26.

But on November 22, Dr Stothard resigned from her role, saying she had “no other alternative” and later took Durham University to an employment tribunal.

Employment judges agreed Dr Stothard had been unfairly dismissed and that she was discriminated against in relation to her health condition, adding that her suspension was an “over-hasty reaction”.

CEM is now run by the University of Cambridge and Dr Stothard runs her own education company.