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Private school headmistress who made fake expenses claims avoids jail

Headmistress at £14,000-a-year private school who made fake expenses claims for luxury shopping vouchers at John Lewis avoids jail

  • Hillary French, 67, also made fake claims for meals out and a stolen coat
  • Newcastle High School for Girls headmistress started deceiving in 2016

A former headmistress of a private school who fraudulently claimed expenses for luxury shopping vouchers worth almost £3,000 has walked free.

Hillary French was the boss at Newcastle High School for Girls when she abused her position by making the false claims for spending at the department store John Lewis.

Newcastle Crown Court heard she also fraudulently claimed for meals out with former students and the theft of an expensive coat which was later found in her car.

The 67-year-old’s deceit began in 2016, when she was the head at the £14K a year private school in the Jesmond area of Newcastle, a post she held between 2006 and 2018.

Prosecutor Liam O’Brien said it was by ‘pure chance’ that one of the former students who French claimed she had met with for a meal, ended up bumping into another member of staff at the school.

Hillary French, 67, used her position as headmistress of a private school to make fraudulent expenses claims worth almost £3,000

Ms French was headmistress at Newcastle High School for Girls between 2006 and 2018

As well as falsely claiming for shopping at John Lewis, Ms French also made fraudulent claims for meals with former students and a stolen expensive coat

She confirmed she had not seen the Ms French since she left school.

Mr O’Brien told the court that the first spate of offending took place between April 2016 and February 2018.

He said: ‘During that period, the defendant submitted a series of expense claims for a total of 65 John Lewis gift vouchers.’

The court heard that Ms French claimed they were all purchased as either leaving gifts for colleagues, rewards for high performing students, or as thanks to guest speakers.

However, Mr O’Brien added: ‘In fact, the vouchers were simply kept by the defendant and used for her own personal benefit.

‘The total amount claimed by the defendant through fraudulent expense claims for the vouchers was just under £3,000, £2,970.’

Mr O’Brien said that by the time of the second fraud, Ms French had already decided to leave the school.

The court heard she travelled to Bath to support the hockey team during a competition in November 2017 to ‘make the most’ of her remaining time at work.

Mr O’Brien said: ‘The defendant travelled to Bath although not with the girls.

‘When she returned to the North East, she submitted expense claims of £220.83 for a series of meals she claimed to have had with former students of Newcastle High School for Girls who were either studying at Bath University or other nearby institutions.

‘Statements were taken from each of the girls who the defendant claimed to have met with.

‘They all said the last time they had seen the defendant was when they left school.’

Mr O’Brien told the court that French later claimed expenses for a brand new coat purchased from the company ‘Sweaty Betty’ which was delivered to the school.

She later claimed it had been stolen but it was recovered in her possession.

Mr O’Brien said: ‘The value of the coat was £295. In fact the coat was never stolen.

‘It was recovered by the police from the boot of the defendant’s vehicle when it was searched following the allegations being made.’

French, of Wearside Drive, Durham, was arrested and initially denied any wrongdoing in interview. However, she later pleaded guilty to three counts of fraud.

In a business impact statement, it was said that Ms French was a respected member of the Girls Day School Trust who governs the school, but her actions ‘significantly undermined’ the trust placed in her.

Despite her repeated fraudulence, Ms French walked free with just a suspended six-month sentence, in addition to 150 hours of unpaid work

Mr Recorder David Brooke KC told French her behaviour would have come as a huge shock to parents and students who looked up to her as a role model.

The judge said: ‘This is a very sad case. ‘You were a headmistress from 2006 after a very long and distinguished career as a teacher.

‘It is all the sadder your career has ended in this way.’

However he told Ms French he was satisfied he could avoid sending her to immediate custody.

She was handed a six-month sentence, suspended for one year, alongside 150 hours of unpaid work.

Andrew Walker, defending, said: ‘It’s a career in which, clearly from the numerous references, she had supported and taught many young people and their families and helped them on their own career path and their life path.

‘Four-and-a-half years is a very long period of time to wake up every day not knowing what action, if any, will be taken.’

Mr Walker added that proceedings were delayed earlier this year following the death of the defendant’s husband.

The court heard French has already paid back a sum of the money but it is not yet known whether a Proceeds of Crime hearing will take place.

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