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Helpline for schools as parents turn to the law

Perth and Kinross believes it is the first council to set up a dedicated legal helpline for schools. It was opened last week, sparked by what Bob McKay, the director of education, called "the increasing potential for litigation" in which schools and education authorities will become involved.

Four solicitors from the council's law department man the phone link every day during working hours. "This is additional to our normal work with which we are fully stretched and no extra resources have been put into it," Lorna McGregor, the council's legal manager, says. "That is an indication of the importance we attach to this service."

Officers found they were spending an increasing amount of time on procedures with legal implications such as discipline, exclusions, assaults and confidentiality. The need for a legal channel from schools into the council offices was reinforced by rights and responsibilities created by the Children Act, Ms McGregor states.

Mr McKay says the service will be available only to heads and senior staff who would be expected to deal internally in the first instance with any issues raised by class teachers.

The kind of issue thrown up by the Children Act, Mr McKay says, is perfectly illustrated by marital breakdown. Schools in the past would almost invariably agree that the mother should have access to the child if she splits from her partner. "But what happens if there is no agreement between the parents and the father insists on access, particularly if there is a background of domestic violence? We are not allowed to assume any longer that it is only the mother who should have rights."

Jim McNair, secretary of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, said: "We have been reassured that the more outrageous attempts to take legal action against schools, for failing to provide an adequate education, for example, have not been successful so long as heads are moderately sensible. Notwithstanding that, there is a consciousness among heads that people are more inclined towards the law, even if it is only at the level of sending a solicitor's letter to the school.

"Authorities have normally been supportive of the headteacher's position and we have not faced a situation so far where we have had to complain about inadequate backing for a headteacher."

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