Find your way through legal maze

24th January 1997 at 00:00
As more schools face litigation, Gerald Haigh looks at the books that lay down teachers' rights and obligations

Few teachers go through their careers without having a professional collision with the legal system. If they are lucky, it will be an easily solved dispute about employment rights. If they are less fortunate, they will be threatened, via a solicitor's letter, with prosecution for assault or false imprisonment. Now, it seems, there is the chance of being taken for damages by a former pupil who has not been educated well enough.

This last scenario was foreseen some time ago by those who study education law. Peter Guggenheim, a former head and an expert in this area, told me: "It was clear by 1991 that you could not have an inspectorial system and a prescribed national curriculum without it leading ultimately to cases of educational malpractice."

He pointed out that even before the most recent cases, the area of special needs had already shown how things might develop. "Firms of solicitors started levering up stones to see what might run out."

The point is that special needs legislation places obligations on schools and local authorities, sets out a code of practice, and provides an independent tribunal to hear unresolved disputes. It is, all sides agree, world-leading legislation. What is missing is the money to make it work, and it is mainly this lack of resources which has, ironically, led to many expensive disputes - the educators set out the child's needs; the administrators fail to come up with the cash.

Consequently, Simon Oliver and Lesley Austen are able to write, in their preface to Special Educational Needs and the Law (Jordans, Pounds 19.50): "For lawyers, education law is a growing area." Their book, painstakingly thorough, picks its way through the law as it stands and through relevant cases, and sets out clearly the rights and obligations of schools, authorities, children and parents.

In some families, especially where there are disputes over provision, it will soon be a well-thumbed friend and for that reason as much as any, it ought also to be in schools. It is as up-to-date as it can be, to the extent of including a folded sheet about the 1996 Education Act.

This sheet demonstrates the problem that afflicts all education law books: they will inevitably be overtaken by new legislation. Lawyers have specialist subscription publications that keep them up-to-date. Teachers and governors, though, want books that provide discussion of the implications, and the speed of events makes it difficult for publishers to provide these.

Many excellent books such as the once indispensable Teachers and the Law, beautifully written by the late Geoffrey Barrell (Methuen, last revised in 1985), are no longer relevant or available.

Many heads, too, will have on their shelves the 1990 edition of The Law Relating to Schools, by Neville Harris, published then by Fourmat. Were they to look at the 1995 edition (now published by Tolley, Pounds 29.95) they might have a shock, for it is a different book, such are the changes that have happened over a short time.

He covers, readably, an astonishing amount of ground, from the detail of grant-maintained status to what to do with something you have confiscated from a pupil. (Destroying it could be trespass; keeping it is probably theft, so "the item should be returned to the pupil or his or her parent at an early opportunity - preferably at the end of the school day".) Harris, a barrister and a reader in Law at Liverpool University has also written Special Educational Needs and Access to Justice, an examination of the workings of the Special Educational Needs Tribunal, which will appear from Jordans in the next month or two. "It assesses the accessibility of the tribunal," Harris told me. "It is aimed at all those working in the field - voluntary organisations, special needs co-ordinators and local authorities."

Another familiar title in which he had a part is The Legal Context of Teaching, by Neville Harris, Penelope Pearce and Susan Johnstone (Longman, Pounds 13.99). This, though, is some four years old and will need to be selectively read.

One way of trying to keep up-to-date is to publish a book annually, which is what Jordans intend to do with Running a School - legal duties and responsibilities by Richard Gold and Stephen Szemerenyi (Pounds 24.95). The book represents a determined attempt to produce a guide for non-specialists, particularly school governors, and is written by a headteacher and a lawyer who is also a governor.

The 13 chapter headings are straightforward and self-explanatory, and include "The Curriculum", "Inspection", "Pupils", "Staff", and "Premises." Each achieves the feat of being simultaneously lucid, comprehensive and up-to-date. "Inspection", for example, explains clearly what happens, and explains accepted practice as well as legal requirements.

The current edition has "19961997" on the cover, and the intention is to produce an updated version each year. It would be an excellent addition to the bookshelf of the chair of governors, who may not want immediate access to the detail included in, say, the comprehensive loose-leaf subscription resources published by Croner.

By selling a loose-leaf binder and sending out regular mailings, Croner have found the ultimate way to keep up with changes in the law. The Head's Legal Guide, which seems to be on the shelf of almost every head I visit, started 12 years ago and has rapidly become the bible for headteachers, with sections on every conceivable area, and quick updates. There is also a fortnightly newsletter, a longer briefing paper every two months and an annual paperback on a particular area.

The Achilles heel of such publications - the too easily neglected chore of taking out obsolete pages and replacing them - has been partly overcome by the introduction of updates by floppy disk. The current first-year subscription to the Head's Legal Guide is Pounds 160.82. Croner also do other loose-leaf guides, including the School Governors Manual (Pounds 143.48) and the Teachers' Legal Guide at Pounds 110. 50.

Education Law by Vera McEwan costs Pounds 32 from CLT Professional Publishing. This is designed for all who need guidance in education law - solicitors and local authority officials as well as heads, governors and parents.

Finally, there are journals. Some, such as Education Law reports from Jordans, are more suitable for lawyers than for general consumption. However, Education and the Law, quarterly from Carfax at Pounds 53 a year, has heads and governors in mind, and has articles on all of the contentious areas such as selection, discipline, employment, parental rights, and special needs.

Jordan Publishing Ltd 21 St Thomas Street, Bristol BS1 6JS Tolley Publishing Company Ltd Tolley House, 2 Addiscombe Road, Croydon CR9 5AF Croner Publications Croner House, London Road, Kingston upon Thames KT2 6SR CLT Professional Publishing Wrens Court, 52-54 Victoria Road, Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands B72 1SX.

Carfax Publishing Company, PO Box 25, Abingdon, Oxfordshire OX14 3UE

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