Jesmond school's headteacher fraudulently claimed 65 John Lewis gift cards as expenses

Hillary French, former headteacher at Newcastle High School for Girls, submitted a number of fraudulent expense claims for John Lewis vouchers, meals and a coat. Credit: NCJ Media

A former headteacher has been spared jail for abusing her position to defraud her school with a number of false expense claims.

Hillary French was a highly-regarded headmistress at the independent Newcastle High School for Girls, in Jesmond, Newcastle, for 12 years after a career spanning more than four decades.

However, her career ended in disgrace when she falsely submitted a number of fraudulent expense claims for John Lewis vouchers, meals and a coat which she falsely claimed had been stolen at the school.

French, of Wearside Drive, Durham, pleaded guilty to three counts of fraud by abuse of position and was given a six months prison sentence, suspended for 12 months with 150 hours of unpaid work.

Newcastle Crown Court heard the 67-year-old carried out the offences between April 2016 and February 2018. She submitted expense claims for 65 John Lewis gift cards which she claimed were presents for staff members, students and thank yous for high-profile guest speakers.

However, she kept them for herself instead, dishonestly claiming £2,790 on gift cards alone.

The second count related to a school hockey trip to Bath in April 2017. French had announced she would be leaving the school at the end of term but the court heard there had been some acrimony behind the decision.

Mr O'Brien, prosecuting, said: "There had been some issues at the school which led to that decision. There was a degree of acrimony.

"She didn't have any real role with the hockey team but said she would go on the trip to make the most of the time she had left as headteacher. She travelled to Bath but not with the students and played no part in the hockey trip.

"When she returned, she submitted expenses for £222 for a series of meals she claimed to have had with former students who were studying at Bath University or other universities nearby. That was entirely dishonest."

Hillary French carried out the offences between April 2016 and February 2018. Credit: NCJ MEDIA

Those on the trip said they had only seen French when they left the school.

The third charge related to a Sweaty Betty coat which French claimed had been stolen from the office at school. She tried to claim on the school's insurance but was told this would not be possible so she later submitted an expenses claim for £295.

However, the coat was later recovered by police from the boot of her car when it was searched after allegations were made.

Mr O'Brien said: "The coat was never stolen. It was recovered by the police from the boot of her car when it was searched after allegations were made to the police."

French initially denied abusing her position or behaving in a dishonest way when interviewed by police and instead claimed, at most, there must have been carelessness before pleading guilty in court.

In a business impact statement, the school said French had been a "highly regarded member of the educational community" and said her actions had "undermined the significant trust pupils, staff, parents and donors had placed in her and the repercussions have been far-reaching". It added that French's actions had undermined the reputation and integrity of the school.

Hillary French was sentenced at Newcastle Crown Court Credit: NCJ MEDIA

Recorder David Brooke KC said: "This is a very sad case. You were headmistress from 2006 after a very long and distinguished career as a teacher. While in that role you committed the three offences of fraud, dishonestly claiming expenses through gift cards, meals and a false claim of theft.

"In the pre-sentence report you express remorse and say you are unable to say why you committed the offences. There were no financial difficulties.

"This was persistent, deliberate, dishonest conduct on a number of occasions."

In addition to her suspended sentence and community service, prosecutors are seeking an order under the Proceeds of Crime Act, although she has already paid back around £3,000.Andrew Walker, defending, said: "She had a long and distinguished career in education. She has supported many young people and their families and helped them on their career path and life path."

He also said there were so many references for French he had to select which ones to hand into the court due to their volume and said they spoke of her "warmth, kindness and inspiration". He also said she had been "highly competent, highly motivated and exceptionally hard-working".

Mr Walker also said French is an "intrinsically decent person", adding that what happened was a "total aberration" on her part. 

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...