The Issue: Accident claims

17th June 2011 at 01:00
With claims against schools reaching pound;33,000, it is crucial that steps are taken to protect pupils from `foreseeable risks'

Custard spills, radiator burns, foam javelins in the eye. Last year more than pound;2 million was paid out in compensation to pupils injured on school premises. And the sheer variety of incidents is a reminder that schools can be dangerous places: pound;6,000 for a pupil who fell off a chair, pound;11,000 for a pupil scalded by a teacher's cup of coffee and pound;33,000 for a pupil who missed the high-jump landing mat.

Not surprisingly, schools are increasingly fearful of being sued. The proliferation of "no-win, no-fee" lawsuits has put teachers on the back foot - one Merseyside head admits he now puts up warning signs on rainy days to remind pupils the playground might be slippery. But just how far do schools have to go?

"Reasonable steps against foreseeable risks" is the mantra of Richard Bird, legal specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). "If a playground is wet because it is raining, pupils can reasonably be expected to know it might be slippery. On the other hand, if a corridor is wet because of a leaky roof, there should certainly be some kind of warning."

But while some incidents - like the custard spill - are probably one-offs, others crop up time and again. Kevin Bolton, a personal injury solicitor in Manchester, says playgrounds are where most accidents happen, but he also highlights science labs and sports halls as high-risk areas. He says most schools have identified such accident hotspots - and that the risk of a lawsuit has played a part in tightening up safety procedures. "The threat of legal action has made schools more safety conscious."

But having safety policies in place is not enough. If you do not follow through on them, they may actually weaken your legal position. After all, you can hardly claim an incident is "not foreseeable" if it has already been identified in your risk assessment. "If rules are in place, they absolutely must be enforced," says Mr Bird, citing one school that banned ball games in certain areas, but then failed to stop pupils playing there. Not surprisingly, when there was an accident, the school was held responsible.

But even when a school is not at fault, it is still possible that compensation will be paid out. Insurance companies often choose to settle claims of less than pound;5,000, rather than fight them in court, because it is cheaper than paying legal fees. These pay-outs can be demoralising for schools, especially if they spark bad publicity - or a rash of copy-cat claims.

So what can be done to break the cycle? "We believe in taking a stand," says a spokesperson for insurance company Ecclesiatical, which covers independent schools, voluntary-aided schools and academies. "If the evidence is overwhelmingly in our customer's favour, we will fight on their behalf. We want to protect schools against an emerging claims culture."

Others believe the Government should do more. Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, would like to see the right to sue schools abolished, except in clearly defined circumstances. "Education should come first and teachers can't do their job if they are continually worrying about being taken to court," he says. "Schools should ask parents to sign contracts, agreeing not to sue. It is too easy to adopt a defensive mindset."

LIABILITY INSURANCE

- Most maintained schools are covered by their local authority. Independent schools and academies must make their own insurance arrangements.

- Insurance policies vary, especially in terms of the activities they allow pupils to engage in. Shop around for the best deal.

- Teachers are covered by their schoollocal authority insurance. However, private tutors or freelance consultants should take out insurance. Premiums start at pound;50 a year.

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