Contracts could create legal minefield

6th December 1996 at 00:00
As two schools are sued by ex-pupils, Frances Rafferty reports on heads' fears that home-school agreements could mean more writs.

Schools will be even more vulnerable to being sued by pupils and former pupils if mandatory school-home contracts are introduced, according to a headteachers' leader.

Peter Miller, president of the Secondary Head Association, said that the two cases involving teenagers being granted legal aid to sue their former schools for giving them a bad education gave cause for alarm. He said: "I am very concerned; it is part of a societal and political change which makes pupils customers, and heads and teachers shop managers. Are we to see pupils showing potential employers their two Fs and a cheque for Pounds 50,000?" He said this was the rationale informing the idea of mandatory home-school contracts and warned that the consequences could be a legal minefield for schools.

His fears were echoed by Pat Petch, chair of the National Governors Council. She said: "The NCC is concerned that the wish of the political parties for home-school contracts will only fuel further public expectations that courts may be the right place to solve problems rather than within the school walls."

The Education Bill gives local education authorities and governing bodies the power to use these contracts as admission criteria. The Labour party is also a keen supporter of home-school contracts.

Jack Rabinowicz, solicitor for the two teenagers and chair of the Education Lawyers Association, said he had many more similar cases of pupils suing on his books. It was a client of Mr Rabinowicz's who won an out-of-court settlement of Pounds 30,000 from his school for allegedly not protecting him from being bullied.

The two 17-year-olds are from schools deemed as failing by the Office of Standards in Education; the girl left school two years ago with GCSEs and the boy got much worse grades than expected. They are both now studying at sixth-form colleges and are suing for the cost of retaking their exams and the time they have lost in being able to search for proper employment.

With 200 schools classed as failing by OFSTED, the teacher unions and local authorities are concerned that many more will come forward claiming compensation.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said it will be difficult to prove how culpable a school is when many other factors can influence an individual's performance. He said these cases should be defended to the bitter end, and Zurich Municipal, which insures most local education authorities, has said it will be prepared to go to court.

Mr Hart also blamed the Government's creation of a market in education for encouraging litigation: "Small wonder that some students may think that if you can sue McDonald's for a bad hamburger, you can sue a school for poor results. "

Julian Gizzi, head of the education law department at solicitors Beachcroft Stanleys, said that if pupils are being legally aided, then taxpayers will be footing the bill. "For the school to defend this action all the way to trial could easily cost as much as two or three times a teacher's salary. Such cases look set to continue, diverting more and more money from education towards lawyers' fees."

Cases to date have not borne out such fears. It was a House of Lords ruling two years ago saying that schools owe a duty of care towards pupils that prompted a number of attempts to sue from pupils who say their special needs were not appropriately met. So far the courts have not ruled in their favour.

The Labour party has said it will change the law to prevent pupils suing over disappointing exam results.

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