Mrs Donna Marie Piper

: Social worker

: SW63756

: Final Hearing

Date and Time of hearing:10:00 19/06/2017 End: 17:00 29/06/2017

: ETC Venues, Avonmouth House, 6 Avonmouth Street, London, SE1 6NX

: Conduct and Competence Committee
: Caution

Allegation

During the course of your employment as a Senior Lecturer in Social Work for Teesside University:

 

1. In relation to the Safeguarding Module (SWK-1038-n), you:

 

a) on or around 22 April 2014 and / or 29 April 2014, provided students with detailed information on case scenarios for the unseen examination of May 2014;

 

b) changed the duration of the examination of 6 May 2014 from three hours to two hours without obtaining the necessary approval to do so;

 

c) used the same exam paper for the Safeguarding Module in 2014 and 2015;

 

2. In relation to the Applied Research for Social Work Module (SWK-2032-n) for the 2014/2015 academic year you:

 

a) provided students with critiques and summaries for them to use for their assessment;

 

b) changed the assessment criteria and/or reduced the word count for the assessment without obtaining the necessary approval to do so;

 

3. Your actions as described in paragraphs 1a), 1c) and 2a) were dishonest.

 

4. The matters as described in paragraphs 1-3 constitute misconduct.

 

5. By reason of your misconduct your fitness to practise is impaired.

Finding

Preliminary matters

1. The Panel was satisfied that the Registrant had been served with notice of the hearing in accordance with the Health and Care Professions Council (Conduct and Competence Committee) (Procedure) Rules 2003 (“the Rules”).

2. Ms Turner made an application for the Panel to proceed with the hearing in the absence of the Registrant. The Panel took into account the HCPTS Practice Note on Proceeding in the Absence of a Registrant and accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor. The Panel was provided with a copy of an email dated 19 June 2017 from the Registrant’s Union representative to the HCPC stating that the Registrant had decided not to attend the hearing and would not be calling any witnesses. The Registrant did not request an adjournment of the hearing or give any reasons why it should be adjourned. The Panel concluded that the Registrant had voluntarily absented herself and had waived her right to attend. No useful purpose would be served by an adjournment, which would be unlikely to secure her attendance in the future. The Panel took into account the convenience of the witnesses for the HCPC who had attended to give evidence. The Panel also took into account the public interest in an expeditious determination of the allegation. In all the circumstances, the Panel concluded that it was in the interests of justice to proceed with the hearing in the absence of the Registrant.

3. Ms Turner applied to amend particular 1(a) of the allegation by altering the date from “on or around 22 April 2014” to “on or around 22 April 2014 and/or 29 April 2014”. The Registrant was served with notice of the proposed amendment by letter dated 15 March 2017 and had raised no objection. The Panel accepted the submission of Ms Turner that the proposed amendment served to ensure that the particular was consistent with the evidence. The Panel considered that the proposed amendment caused no injustice to the Registrant. Accordingly, the application to amend the allegation was granted.

Background

4. The Registrant is a registered Social Worker. She was employed as a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Teesside University (“the University”).

5. In her role as a Senior Lecturer, the Registrant acted as a module leader for two social work modules: the Safeguarding Module SWK-1038-n (“the Safeguarding Module”) and the Applied Research for Social Work Module SWK-2032-n (“the Applied Research Module”).

6. Following concerns raised by a student in October 2015, an investigation was undertaken by the University which identified several areas of concern relating to the Registrant’s conduct as module leader of these two modules.

7. In November 2015, the Registrant made a self-referral to the HCPC regarding these issues following disciplinary proceedings brought against her by her employer.

The conduct of the hearing

8. The HCPC presented a core bundle totalling 70 pages and an exhibits bundle totalling 522 pages. In addition, the HCPC relied on the witness statements of the following witnesses, all of whom – apart from BP – gave oral evidence in support of the allegation:

a) LN, Associate Dean at the University, who worked as a member of the Senior Executive Team within the School of Health and Social Care at the University (“the School”).

b) JJ, who was employed by the University at the material time as an Assistant Dean (Academic Development and Governance). As part of her role she oversaw all of the School’s assessment processes, advised academic staff on assessment strategies and dealt with student-related assessment issues.

c) MW, a Senior Lecturer in social work at the School. He was a colleague of the Registrant at the material time and had mentored her when she was first employed at the University. He was a co-lecturer with the Registrant on the Applied Research Module along with PR. MW’s student group merged with the Registrant’s group and she effectively took over the responsibility for the combined group.

d) PR, a Senior Lecturer in Research Methods at the University, who worked with the Registrant as a co-lecturer on the Applied Research Module from September 2014 until May 2015.

e) JM, who from 2013 to 2016 was a student at the University studying Social Work. In his first year, he was enrolled on the Safeguarding Module run by the Registrant. During his second year on the course he worked as a Student Representative employed by the Students’ Union. He also attended the Applied Research Module run by PR.

f) RM, who from 2013 to 2016 was a student at the University studying Social Work. She was taught by the Registrant during her first year on the Safeguarding Module and during her second year on the applied Research Module. She raised concerns with JM about the Registrant’s conduct of the Safeguarding Module.

g) BP, an Education Manager at the HCPC, who is responsible for quality assessment and assurance of HCPC approved education and training programmes.

9. The Registrant submitted a bundle of documents totalling 186 pages, which comprised her response to the employer’s disciplinary process.

10. The relevant statutory ground in this case is misconduct.

11. In alleging misconduct, the HCPC placed reliance on the 2012 edition of the HCPC Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics, as well as the University’s Assessment Regulations for Undergraduate Awards 2013-2015 and Module Guide.

Burden and standard of proof

12. The Panel was mindful that the burden of proof is on the HCPC and that the civil standard of proof applies, so the particulars of the allegation must be proved on the balance of probabilities. The Panel took into account submissions by Ms Turner on behalf of the HCPC and the Registrant and accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor.

The witnesses

13. The Panel considered LN’s evidence to be credible, detailed and reliable.

14. The Panel found JJ’s evidence to be clear, balanced and fair. Whilst she had no recollection of being asked by the Registrant for advice about making changes in the Safeguarding Module, she was firm in her evidence as to what advice she would have given the Registrant if she had been asked.

15. The Panel found JM to be a truthful and reliable witness.

16. RM came across as a very genuine and credible witness.

17. The Panel was unimpressed by MW as a witness. He had difficulty in giving straightforward answers to simple questions, resorted to obfuscation and directed his evidence towards disassociating himself from any blame which might attach to the Registrant’s conduct of the courses. The Panel found his evidence to be unreliable in several instances.

18. The Panel considered PR’s evidence to be reliable, although he was not particularly forthcoming and was inclined to be protective of the Registrant in some of his answers.

19. The evidence of BP was of a formal nature and his witness statement was read without the need for his attendance to give oral evidence.

Decision on fact

20. The Panel considered each of the particulars of the allegation and made the following findings of fact.

Particular 1(a)  Proved

21. The Panel was provided with JM’s notes which he made on 22 April 2014 during the pre-examination lecture. These recorded the case scenario provided by the Registrant, which was the same as that postulated in the examination paper. JM also recorded during the lecture the exact questions found within the examination paper and the answers which the Registrant provided to the students during the lecture. He stated that the Registrant had informed the student cohort that she had the examination paper in her possession and she read directly from it. She told the students what the questions in the examination would be. Consequently, he had no difficulty in answering the examination questions.

22. The Panel was also provided with RM’s notes from the pre-examination lecture on 29 April 2014 which clearly prefigured the answers to the questions found within the examination paper.

23. RM described feeling uneasy about the amount of information that was being shared and felt it was too much compared with that provided by other lecturers.

Particular 1(b)  Proved

24. The University Regulations Online Module Specification stipulated that the assessment would be a three hour unseen examination. An email from MP, the Assistant Administrator, stated that students had been told that the exam would be two hours and not three. The Registrant was the only lecturer teaching this module. MP confirmed that he was informed of this change by the Registrant. Both JM and RM confirmed in evidence that the time for completing the examination was changed from three hours to two. They stated that Registrant had expressed criticisms of first year students having to take a three hour unseen examination.

25. JJ, who was an Assistant Dean at the relevant time, gave evidence that making changes to the assessment process was a formal process. Any changes would need to be put before an approval panel which was made up of University representatives. She stated that she could not recall the Registrant seeking her advice to change the examination duration, but confirmed that changes to the length of exam would amount to a ‘major change’ and as such trigger the major change process. If asked by the Registrant, she would have advised her accordingly.

Particular 1(c)  Proved

26. The Panel was satisfied on the documentary evidence that the examination paper for the Safeguarding Module in 2014 was identical to the examination for the Safeguarding Module in 2015.

Particular 2(a)  Proved

27. RM gave evidence that students were provided with ten papers from which they had to choose two to critique. During the class, the Registrant advised the students to pick the two papers, which they went through as group. She also provided the students with detailed summaries. RM was concerned that students were given too much information. She raised her concerns with JM who was a student representative at the time.

28. The summaries for the two papers were uploaded onto the Blackboard, but subsequently disappeared around the time the assessment was due to be handed in. RM confirmed in evidence that she saw them on the Blackboard and then subsequently noticed that they had disappeared. She also confirmed that it was the Registrant who had uploaded them.

29. During the internal investigation, LN noted that the entire cohort had opted to choose the music therapy article, which was one of the papers the Registrant went through in detail. Most students analysed the domestic violence article which was the second paper for which the Registrant had provided a summary.

Particular 2(b)  Proved

30. The University Regulations Online Module Specification for the Applied Research for Social Workers provided that the assessment would be a 4,000 word assignment comprising a critical appraisal of three published research papers.

31. JM gave evidence that the word count was reduced, which concerned him.

32. PR stated that the word count was discussed in meetings of the module team comprising himself, Donna Piper and MW, which made a collective decision to allow “flexibility” in the word count.

33. JJ stated in her evidence that changing the word count of an assessment amounted to a ‘major change’ and therefore it should have gone through the formal process. PR did not disagree with this evidence.

Particular 3  Proved

34. In considering the issue of dishonesty, the Panel applied the two part test referred to in the case of  (R v Ghosh [1982] QB 1053, as modified by Twinsectra Ltd v Yardley [2002] UKHL 12), namely:

(i) on the balance of probabilities, whether, according to the ordinary standards of reasonable and honest members of the public, what was done by the Registrant was dishonest; and, if so,

(ii) on the balance of probabilities, whether the Registrant herself knew that what she was doing was dishonest by those standards.

35. With regard to particular 1(a), the Panel considered whether a reasonable and honest member of the public would consider it to be dishonest for a lecturer to divulge verbatim to her students in advance of the unseen examination the entire contents of the examination paper and feed them with model answers to those questions. The two students, JM and RM, were in no doubt that it was wrong for the Registrant to do this and they felt that the assessment process was undermined and compromised by her actions. The Panel agreed with their evidence and found that objectively the Registrant’s conduct in relation to particular 1(a) was dishonest.

36. In considering whether the Registrant herself realised that her actions were dishonest, the Panel noted the evidence of JM who described the conspiratorial atmosphere of the lecture in which the Registrant had divulged verbatim the contents of the exam paper. He described how the Registrant kept the doors closed and hid the examination paper behind her back whenever someone entered the room.

37. RM gave evidence that the Registrant had given permission to the students to record the entire proceedings and that she had not only told her students what the questions were but also told them what answers to give.

38. By contrast, the Registrant, when interviewed in the course of her employer’s investigation, denied having divulged the contents of the examination paper, denied having provided her students with the answers and denied having permitted them to record the proceedings.

39. The Panel believed the evidence of JM and RM and concluded that the Registrant was untruthful during the investigation because she knew that her actions had been dishonest.

40. With regard to particulars 1(c) and 2(a) the Panel was not satisfied that the Registrant’s actions were dishonest and accordingly particular 3 is proved only to the extent of particular 1(a).

Decision on grounds

41. The Panel went on to consider whether the facts found proved amounted to misconduct, as alleged in particular 4.

42. The Panel was mindful that this is a matter for the Panel’s professional judgment, there being no standard or burden of proof.

43. The Panel took into that misconduct was defined in Roylance v General Medical Council (no 2) [2001] 1 AC 311 as:

“a word of general effect, involving some act or omission which falls short of what would be proper in the circumstances. The standard of propriety may often be found by reference to the rules and standards ordinarily required to be followed by a medical practitioner in the particular circumstances”.

44. It is clear from case law that misconduct must be serious.

45. In the Panel’s judgment, the particulars, which it has found proved constituted misconduct. The Registrant was in breach of the following provisions of the HCPC’s Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics (2012):

• Paragraph 3: You must keep high standards of personal conduct, as well as professional conduct.

• Paragraph 13: You must behave with honesty and integrity and make sure that your behaviour does not damage the public’s confidence in you or your profession.

Decision on Impairment

46. The Panel considered the submissions on behalf of the HCPC. The Panel took into account the HCPTS Practice Note on Finding that Fitness to Practise is Impaired and accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor.

47. In determining whether the Registrant’s fitness to practise is impaired, the Panel took into account both the ‘personal’ component and ‘public’ component. The personal component relates to the Registrant’s own practice as a Social Worker, including any evidence of insight and remorse and efforts towards remediation. The ‘public’ component includes the need to protect service users, declare and uphold proper standards of behaviour and maintain public confidence in the profession and the regulator.

48. The Panel found that the Registrant’s fitness to practise was and remains impaired having regard to the personal component. The Registrant has not engaged constructively with the HCPC in these proceedings and has not attended this hearing. She has produced neither references nor testimonials nor any information about her practice since the date of the matters to which these proceedings relate. The Panel has found little evidence of remorse on the part of the Registrant or insight as to the consequences of her misconduct in undermining the validity of the assessment process for students, the University or the profession at large. There is no evidence before the Panel that the Registrant has remediated her practice.

49. The Panel also found the public component of impairment to be satisfied in this case. Public confidence in the validity and robustness of assessment procedures for students studying social work on the University course would be undermined by the Registrant’s misconduct. Accordingly, public confidence in the profession and in the regulator would be undermined if there no finding of impairment.

Decision on Sanction

50. The Panel took into account the submissions of Ms Turner.

51. The Panel had due regard to the HCPTS Indicative Sanctions Policy and accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor. The Panel was mindful that the purpose of a sanction is not to punish the Registrant but to protect the public and the wider public interest of upholding proper standards and maintaining the reputation of the profession. The Panel applied the principle of proportionality, balancing the interests of the Registrant with those of the public, and considered the available sanctions in ascending order.

52. The mitigating factors are:

• The Registrant’s misconduct was not motivated by a desire for personal advancement or gain but by a misguided attempt to assist her students by compensating them for the disadvantages of a course which was badly organised and subject to a number of teething problems.

• Her misconduct did not involve any public protection concerns.

• Her misconduct related to two specific incidents which occurred in a time span of two years.

• Apart from these two incidents, there was no suggestion that the Registrant was other than a good Social Worker and competent university lecturer. During the same period she had been the course leader for a number of other modules and there had been no concerns in relation to her conduct of those modules.

53. The Registrant had an otherwise unblemished career and was sufficiently well regarded to have achieved the role of Senior Lecturer.
The aggravating factors are:

• The Registrant had shown little remorse or insight and had only made a partial admission to the allegation.

• She had not engaged constructively with the HCPC in these proceedings and had not attended this hearing.

• She had not provided any evidence of reflection or remediation.

54. Notwithstanding the Registrant’s apparent lack of insight, the Panel considered that the risk of repetition was low. The University had dealt with the Registrant’s misconduct in a robust manner and she had suffered consequences personally and professionally which she would undoubtedly wish to avoid in the future.

55. The Panel considered that taking no further action would not be appropriate, given the finding of dishonesty and the need to maintain public confidence in the profession and the regulator.

56. The Panel determined that in all the circumstances a Caution Order was the appropriate and proportionate sanction in this case. The finding of dishonesty would be reflected by imposing the Caution Order for a period of 4 years.

Order

The Registrar is directed to annotate the register entry of Donna Marie Piper with a caution which is to remain on the register for a period of four years from the date this order comes into effect.

Notes

The Registrant may appeal to the High Court in England and Wales against the Panel’s decision and the order any appeal must be made to the court not more than 28 days after the date when this notice is served.

Hearing history

History of Hearings for Mrs Donna Marie Piper

Date Panel Hearing type Outcomes / Status
19/06/2017 Conduct and Competence Committee Final Hearing Caution