Norfolk head and priest in bitter row with Norfolk council

Steve DownesAn 'outstanding' former Norfolk headteacher and a long-serving parish priest who worked alongside her as governors' chairman for 10 years are embroiled in a bitter row with Norfolk County Council.Steve Downes

An 'outstanding' former Norfolk headteacher and a long-serving parish priest who worked alongside her as governors' chairman for 10 years are embroiled in a bitter row with Norfolk County Council.

Cindy Baldwin and Fr Patrick Kerley are threatening to sue the council for defamation over a financial probe that was launched when Mrs Baldwin retired after 21 years at the helm of the Bawburgh School, near Norwich.

They claimed the investigation led to 'playground gossip' and posts on internet sites including Facebook that suggested they were involved in fraud - which proved to be unfounded when the council later ruled that everything was in order.

Fr Patrick, who spent 17 years as a church leader in Norfolk and Suffolk, is also at loggerheads with the council after it sacked him from his role as governors' chairman when the investigation was under way.

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The former parish priest, who was a curate at Wymondham Abbey and team vicar at St Nicholas Church in Great Yarmouth, is demanding an apology for the way he has been treated.

He said: 'There's been a lot of pain caused to me and to my family. It was effectively suggested that Cindy and I had committed fraud, but we have never had an apology.'

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Fr Patrick was a Bawburgh School governor for 15 years, including 10 as chairman.

He said he used his day off every week for 15 years to teach a religious education class, take an assembly and drive children to their swimming lesson - a routine that continued even when he was ministering in Great Yarmouth and later in Eyke in Suffolk.

Mrs Baldwin was head of The Bawburgh School from 1987 until December 2008. In 1997, it was selected by the government as one of 270 schools nationwide to be asked to join the Nationally Outstanding Primary Schools scheme.

She said: 'The school was our family and everything we did was for the children.'

The problems began when the council carried out an audit of the school's accounts when Mrs Baldwin was retiring. The audit quickly became a formal investigation, which Mrs Baldwin said led to rumours that she and Fr Patrick had been involved in fraud.

Separate allegations led to Fr Patrick being dismissed as a local authority-nominated governor by Fred Corbett, the council's deputy director of children's services, on January 23 last year.

The financial probe soon ended without any action being taken. And children's services director Lisa Christensen has since said the decision to remove him was too hasty because he was not given the opportunity to respond to the allegations.

Tim Cary, a solicitor for Leathes Prior, has written to the council to say its removal of Mr Kerley was 'unlawful and unjustified', and to argue that there was a case for him to sue for defamation, as a result of comments made at a governors' meeting and 'seepage' of the comments into the public domain.

A council spokesman said: 'Whenever issues arise at a school we have a duty to carry out a thorough investigation, in the interests of the school, its pupils and the wider community.

'We have not received any claim for defamation from either Mrs Baldwin or Fr Patrick. However, any such claim would be both vigorously denied and defended.'

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