Helpline

4th December 1998 at 00:00
Q. Although we have several assemblies each week in this school, we are well aware that we do not provide the statutory daily act of worship. One or two of our governors are demanding that we comply with the law. How should we respond?

A. I assume that your failure to conform with the law is, as it is in many schools, because you do not have a sufficient number of staff willing to conduct daily acts of worship in locations where all pupils can attend.

There is a Latin legal tag, "nemo dat quod non habet", which means "no one can deliver what he has not got". In other words, if your failure to meet the legal requirements is the result of circumstances outside your control, you can simply report that you do the best you can.

Q. A parent has written to the chair of governors complaining that I, the head, am a racist. I know that I am not. Should I take legal action against her for libel?

A. Although prominent public figures sometimes attract media attention when they are awarded huge sums for damages in libel cases, this course of action is seldom so profitable for the average citizen. A number of criteria need to be satisfied before one starts. The statement not only has to be untrue, it also has to be deliberately malicious. The complainant has to show that it has done damage in real terms to his or her reputation, rather than simply caused annoyance or hurt. The statement has to be published, which, in legal terms, means that it has to be made available to a number of people.

Libel actions are expensive and uncertain of outcome and they tend to take a long time to come to court. When they eventually get there, they may have the undesired effect of resurrecting a matter which had already been forgotten, a process which may prove damaging.

If heads took legal action every time someone said something unpleasant or untrue about them, the legal profession would be substantially more well-heeled than it is already, although heads would probably be poorer for the experience. A certain amount of vilification comes inevitably with the job and, unless it gets seriously out of hand, is best either ignored or addressed with restraint. I would advise your chairman to respond by saying that he has investigated the matter of which she complains, which he should have done, and found the allegation to be without substance, assuming that to be the outcome. If she persists, she would have to be told that there is public remedy for those who feel that they have suffered racial discrimination, namely referral to the Commission for Racial Equality. The subsequent investigation might prove time-consuming but, if it demonstrates the school's probity as well as yours, the exercise will have been worthwhile.

Q. I am applying for the headship of a grant-maintained school, but am concerned about what the future for such schools may be. Can you advise ?

A. In April 1999, grant-maintained schools will cease to exist and most of them will be transformed into foundation schools. All the indications are that these will retain most of the freedoms enjoyed by grant-maintained schools, although they will come within the authority of local education authorities in matters relating to admissions and planning.

Some people fear that authorities will seek to adopt a more interventionist approach with former grant-maintained schools, but the legislation leaves them little scope for doing so. In terms of funding, foundation schools will receive their budgets from the authority, the Funding Agency for Schools being abolished, but they will retain the management freedom which they currently enjoy. As the financial advantages which grant-maintained schools enjoyed in their early days have already largely vanished, the overall change should not be dramatic.

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