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Consumers in sharp suits

Perhaps it's time we finally ditched that smug old cliche: "It could only happen in America." Who can still utter that sentence with any conviction at the end of a year in which Group 4, the company that runs private jails, won the contract to administer nursery inspections, and an allegedly health-conscious Government allowed a London secondary school to accept sponsorship from the tobacco giant BAT? Now, we learn that two 17-year-olds who didn't achieve their expected GCSE results may sue their schools.

Unsurprisingly, their lawyer is Jack Rabinowicz, who recently won a Pounds 30,000 out-of-court settlement for a 20-year-old who was allegedly bullied at school.

A New Yorker would barely raise an eyebrow if a baker was sued for a million dollars for selling mouldy bagels, but even the Americans don't expect lawsuits from underachieving students. English headteachers, governors and local authority leaders have reacted to the news with incredulity, too. But no one should be flabbergasted by this turn of events. Peter Miller, president of the Secondary Heads Association, is surely right that this is the inevitable consequence of ncouraging parents and pupils to think of themselves as "consumers".

It is debatable whether Britain is becoming a more litigious society - the Law Society says there is no statistical evidence to support that belief - but we are certainly less deferential towards the professions and more aware of our supposed rights, even though we may not always be able to exercise them. And schools have already been buffeted by this wind of change, especially since the House of Lords ruled last year that they owe a duty of care towards pupils' educational - as well as physical - well-being. This has prompted a number of legal actions involving pupils with special needs.

Nevertheless, media talk of an impending flood of claims by disappointed GCSE candidates is alarmist. Schools should be re-examining their insurance policies and reconsidering whether their record-keeping is sufficiently circumspect. But it will be astonishing if the 17-year-olds win their case.

Contrary to some press reports, it has not even been confirmed that they will receive legal aid. The near impossibility of apportioning blame will prove an even bigger obstacle, however. Children in "failing" schools can still achieve decent GCSEs, and if they do not, a multiplicity of possible explanations can be advanced. Research has shown that a child's home, neighbourhood and fellow pupils can have a far bigger impact than the school. Furthermore, as Professor David Reynolds says (page 16), there is a growing consensus that primary schools have a greater influence than secondary schools.

Even if Mr Rabinowicz triumphs against all the odds the Government will quickly move to close the loophole. However, this brouhaha has perhaps served a useful purpose in reminding everyone of the seriousness of the commitment that the Government, schools, LEAs, governors and, indeed, parents must make to children's education Some teachers may be outraged that lawyers should intrude on their territory, but this week's Personal Finance article (TES2, page 26) on the equally problematical legal actions being mounted by NASUWT and NUT members who believe that they have been made ill by occupational stress is a reminder that the law can be a friend as well as a foe.

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