NI Schools' Legal Update 2020

NI Schools' Legal Update 2020

Due to the current situation with Coronavirus/Covid-19, this event has been postponed until Autumn 2020. If you'd like to be notified when the new date is confirmed, please email

Regardless of any additional funding that may be forthcoming as a result of the NI Assembly sitting again, the teaching profession has become a more difficult job, with increasing behavioural problems, rising expectations of parents, increased class sizes and historical budget cuts.  Court decisions on annual leave, holiday pay and the recording of working time in the last few months also have brought an existential threat to school budgets.

This event brings together the top lawyers working in education, together with other experts in equality fields, and case studies from three school principals in Northern Ireland.  We have four sessions on employment law developments that you need to know about and three sessions on two of the biggest challenges facing educationalists at the moment – transgender and autism issues in schools.

Why is this event important for YOU?

School budgets are tight enough as it is, but court decisions on annual leave, holiday pay and the recording of working time in the last few months have brought an existential threat to school budgets, as well as others outside the education sector.

In addition to this major issue, do you know the law on when you are allowed to contact absent staff? Do you know the law on recording (covert or overt) of meetings? What does a sabbatical do to a teacher’s employment status? How far must you go to allow flexibility in schools? We have four sessions on employment law developments that you need to know about and three sessions on two of the biggest issues facing educationalist at the moment – transgender and autism in schools.

After attending:

  • You will know the answers to the above questions and more, but you’ll also know how best to sensitively handle issues surrounding transgender students and those with autism
  • You’ll have practical options to consider for flexible uniform policies in your school
  • You will have had ample time to explore challenging issues with our experts and your peers.
  • You will have been so engaged, you’ll want to come back the following year for our 2021 round-up of developments

Course overview/outline programme:

Morning Sessions (including panel discussions) –

  • The NI Schools' Employment Law Update, including working time and holiday pay developments that have a direct application in NI schools
  • When is the Right Time to Contact Absent Staff?
  • Fixed Term Contracts in Schools – Dangers and benefits
  • Flexible Working – Good for Your School and Your Staff?

Afternoon sessions (including panel discussions) –

  • Equality Issues 1 - Guidance for Schools on Supporting Transgender Young People
  • Equality Issues 2 – Further Practical Considerations in Schools
  • Equality Issues 3 - Autism and Neurodiversity

Who is it for?
This practical seminar will be particularly valuable to School Principals and Vice Principals and other school leaders, including teaching union representatives.

When and where?
9.20am - 4.00pm, Autumn 2020
Dunsilly Hotel, Antrim

Standard Rate: £245 +VAT





Welcome & Introduction from Robert Wilson, Regional Officer Northern Ireland, ASCL.


The NI Schools' Employment Law Update: 2019 has seen the development of many new laws relating to employment, mainly through case law decisions of her higher courts, including the Supreme Court and the NI Court of Appeal. Find out the latest laws relating to:

• When is it not a disciplinary offence for employees to covertly record meetings? When is it an offence for employees to covertly record meetings?

• What does the latest ruling from the ECJ about recording all employees’ daily hours mean for you?

• What might the NI Court of Appeal's ruling on including average overtime in holiday pay cost your school, bearing in mind claims may go back to 1998?

• The England & Wales Court of Appeal ruled that holiday entitlement for term-time employees should not be pro-rated. Which of your employees are affected and what additional costs do you face?

• Performance/capability or ill health/capability? - Which route should you take if you have a poor performer who also has poor health?

• Sabbaticals and secondments - What should an agreement say about an employee’s employment status, annual leave, redundancy, family leave, and return to work? And why do many sabbaticals and secondments end in conflict?

• Fair audit trail – Why might a data SAR (subject access request) expose you to unnecessary risk when handling grievances and disciplinary issues?

Seamus McGranaghan, Director, O’Reilly Stewart Solicitors provides detailed notes and a checklist of recommendations to help keep you up to date and out of tribunal.


How Soon is Now? When is the Right Time to Contact Absent Staff? Most of us will be ill at some point in our lives. That means that most of your staff will be ill at some point in their lives. If that time comes during their working life:

  • When is it OK for an employer to contact them about their continuing absence?
  • Is it lawful to contact sick employees at home, either by telephone or in person?
  • Can you expect them to answer emails to their personal accounts?
  • When can you refer them to occupational health?
  • Can you lawfully contact their GP?
  • How long do you have to wait until termination of employment becomes a safe option?
  • What if staff are disabled – does that limit your options?
  • What are the rights of the non-absent colleagues who have to cover?
  • What information can you lawfully provide to non-absent colleagues?

Orlagh O’Neill, Partner, Carson McDowell explains the law in Northern Ireland relating to absence and its applicability within the education sector.


Panel Q&A


Networking & Break


Fixed Term Contracts in Schools. It may be tempting for School Leaders to designate certain positions as being for a fixed period, perhaps an academic year, particularly if funding is uncertain from year to year. However, fixed term contracts (FTCs) come with many hidden dangers and there have been myriad important employment cases that have tripped up well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) employers. It is relatively common for FTCs to become permanent over time, for their termination to become automatically unfair and for innocent differences in treatment between permanent and fixed term employees to be deemed unlawful detriments. Paul Upson, Associate Director, Napier Solicitors discusses the laws on using FTCs and how to keep on the right side of those laws.


Flexible Working – Good for Your School and Your Staff? In August 2019 the CIPD reported that a study outlining the positive benefits of flexible working has found that more than a third of flexible workers have seen an improvement in their mental health. The survey discovered that 39% of those who worked flexibly had benefited from better mental health. It also found that 43 per cent who did not have the option of flexible working felt it would enable them to better manage their mental health. Almost one in seven (69%) respondents felt flexible working helped them maintain a work-life balance. The same proportion of those not currently working flexibly said it would make them more productive. The findings, and those of countless other surveys, are clear – flexible working creates a better working environment, with concomitant benefits. So, if flexible working is so good for employees and schools are struggling to attract certain employees, how can schools provide greater flexibility within a timetabled environment? Miss Janet Williamson, Principal, The Royal Belfast Academical Institution, and Dr David Burnett, Principal, Royal School Dungannon, set out their thoughts and practical suggestions. 


Panel Q&A


Networking & Lunch


Equality Issues 1 - Guidance for Schools on Supporting Transgender Young People: The Education Authority has developed non-statutory guidance for staff in schools and other educational settings on how to support transgender young people. The guidance does not recommend a ‘one size fits all’ approach but is designed to help staff in making justifiable decisions with regard to the support of transgender young people, including assessing any impact of those decisions on other pupils. Adam Brett, Partner, Jones Cassidy Brett sets out the legal framework on transgender issues in schools and the status of the new Guidance.


Equality Issues 2 – Further Practical Considerations in Schools. LGBT+ issues will probably impact in all schools at some point. But what is the correct approach? How should schools respond to, for example:

  • A transgender child (or one who declares a non-binary identity) who refuses to use their birth gender changing facilities?
  • A request for a trans child to play sports in a team with their new gender?
  • A former male student wearing the female student uniform?
  • A former female student wearing the male student uniform?

Importantly, how should schools raise these issues with other students, whilst providing a safe place of study for the trans student? Alexa Moore, Director, Transgender NI, was involved in the creation of the EA guidance and discusses the practical implications and recommendations set out in the EA guidance.

Also, in March 2019 it was announced that Methodist College Belfast was reviewing its uniform policy, partly to ensure transgender pupils and those from religious groups feel comfortable. The College has consulted with parents for their views on any potential changes and pupils and staff have also be asked for their opinions. School Principal, Scott Naismith, believes that schools should regularly review their uniform policy and accommodate the needs of a wide range of pupils with different backgrounds. A uniform policy should be flexible enough to ensure that recognised minorities are able to feel comfortable, e.g. religious groups, ethnic minorities, or pupils with gender dysphoria. So, how far should this flexibility go and what lessons can other schools learn from the approach of Methody? 


Equality Issues 3 – Autism and Neurodiversity. 

The number of children being diagnosed with autism in Northern Ireland has more than doubled in five years. Some health trusts have seen a three-fold increase and there are also 2,500 under-18s still waiting to be assessed. Christine Kearney, Director of Development, Autism NI, said her organisation is "inundated" with requests for support. In 2016, Autism NI and the National Autistic Society NI published the Broken Promises report, which said the legislation and resulting strategy and action plan had "failed to deliver on its promises of help for autistic people, their families and carers". The absence of a working Executive and Assembly for three years compounded matters but recent progress has been made in relation to mandatory autism training for teachers being debated and supported within the Assembly. So, how should schools deal with students diagnosed with autism or other neuro-diverse conditions? How should they deal with those awaiting formal diagnosis? Christine sets out her thoughts and provides a checklist of options for school leaders to consider.


Panel Discussion






"Well prepared, well delivered, well resourced, well presented. The contributors were knowledgeable but ensured that the delivery style and content was accessible."
Graham Montgomery, Headmaster, Royal School, Armagh

"Very clear and useful information, both verbal and written. I hope I don't encounter all these potential problems but feel better equipped to deal with them should that day come."
Vivien Moorhouse, Principal, Leaney Primary School

"Very appropriate content."
Sean Sloan, Principal, Abbey CBS Newry

"Excellent speakers and information topical and well delivered."
Roisin Bell, Employment Relations Manager, Labour Relations Agency

"The information was concise, relevant and well -presented. the organisation by ASCL and LI was very good."
David Carruthers, Headmaster, Coleraine Grammar School

"I liked the expertise of the presenters - I certainly learnt a great deal; covered relevant areas."
Chris Peel, Headmaster, Sullivan Upper School


  • Robert Wilson
    Robert Wilson Regional Officer
    Northern Ireland Association of School and College Leaders

    Robert was a Senior Teacher at Coleraine High School from 1998-2007. He was also Vice Principal of Cambridge House Grammar School 2007-2009 (Acting Principal 2008) and Associate Assessor ETI 2005-2009. Before becoming Principal of Limavady Grammar School 2009-2016.

    During this time Robert sat on the QUB Headteachers' Focus Group and represented ASCL NI on the UCAS Council.

    On taking early retirement from Limavady, Robert took up the part-time role of Regional Officer with ASCL in September 2016.

  • Seamus McGranaghan
    Seamus McGranaghan Director - Commercial
    O'Reilly Stewart Solicitors

    Seamus McGranaghan qualified as a Solicitor in O'Reilly Stewart Solicitors in 2003 and practices mainly in the areas of education and employment law. Seamus has assisted and advised many Boards of Governors, Senior Management Teams and Teachers in relation to all aspects of education and employment law. Seamus also provides advocacy services for Boards of Governors on both Expulsion Appeals and Independent Admissions Appeal tribunals. 

  • Orlagh O'Neill
    Orlagh O'Neill Partner
    Carson McDowell

    Orlagh O'Neill is a Partner and Head of the Employment Team at Carson McDowell Solicitors in Belfast. She advises mainly employer clients on a wide range of employment issues and has acted for some of Northern Ireland's largest employers, including Royal Mail and BT. She is a committee member and vice chair of the Employment Lawyers Group of Northern Ireland, a member of both the UK and Irish Employment Law Groups (ELA and ELAI) and a regular speaker at annual employment law update conferences.

  • Paul Upson
    Paul Upson Associate Director
    Napier Solicitors

    Paul Upson is an Associate Director with employment and education law specialists, Napier Solicitors.

    Paul studied law at Queen’s University and before joining Napier Solicitors he gained over 15 years post qualification experience as an employment solicitor at a major national law firm. He has worked with clients in a wide variety of employment sectors, including schools, further education colleges and universities.

  • Janet Williamson
    Janet Williamson Principal
    Royal Belfast Academical Institution

    Janet Williamson is the current Principal at The Royal Belfast Academical Institution (RBAI).  Previous roles include Principal at Antrim Grammar School; Deputy Head, Wilson’s School, Surrey; teaching posts at Aylesbury Boys Grammar School, Buckinghamshire, Gosford Hall, Oxfordshire, Statistics tutor, Oxford University.

  • Dr David Burnett
    Dr David Burnett Principal
    Royal School Dungannon

    David returned from a 13-year spell working at two of England's top grammar schools, King Edward VI in Essex and Westcliffe High School in Southend, to take up one of the most prestigious posts in education across Ireland. Founded in 1608 by Royal Charter, RSD is the oldest grammar school in Northern Ireland, and has an island-wide reputation for academic and sporting excellence.

  • Adam Brett
    Adam Brett Partner
    Jones Cassidy Brett

    Adam Brett is a Partner in Jones Cassidy Brett. For many years Adam jointly headed the litigation department of a major Belfast Commercial Practice, and for the last 20 years he has concentrated increasingly on employment and discrimination matters. Adam has throughout his career advised a wide range of educational and charitable bodies, including Schools, Universities, Colleges, and other educational institutions in relation to employment, student and other concerns.


  • Alexa Moore
    Alexa Moore Director
    Transgender NI

    Alexa is a trans rights activist from Newry. She began working in the trans community midway through 2016, while she was still in school, and has been on the GenderJam Committee since August 2016 which offers support to trans young people in Newry and the surrounding areas. She’s also been involved in running events and doing advocacy work through the Belfast Trans Resource Centre since it was launched. Besides trans rights work, Alexa was a committee member in the Northern Ireland Youth Forum from 2016 to 2018, and has promoted and advocated for the rights of young people on a regional and national level for the past several years, whilst ensuring the inclusion of trans young people in youth movements.

  • Scott Naismith
    Scott Naismith Principal
    Methody College Belfast

    Scott Naismith is Principal of Methody College Belfast. Scott has worked in anumber of senior teaching roles, previously serving as head of Regent House School, Newtownards between 2003 and 2007 and deputy head at George Heriot’s independent school in Scotland for almost 10 years.

  • Christine Kearney
    Christine Kearney Director of Development
    Autism NI

    Christine Kearney is the Director of Development at Autism NI. In her career, Christine has worked extensively with autistic children, young people and adults through mentoring, social groups and delivering individualised early intervention programmes. In her current role, Christine manages the training team and early intervention services. Part of this role is to develop training and support services to improve accessibility within a range of services, including the education sector.


Event details


9.20am - 4.00pm


27 March 2020


Dunsilly Hotel, Antrim


Standard Rate: £245+VAT

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