Overload brings risk of law-breaking

28th November 2008 at 00:00
Schools in danger of legal transgressions and prosecution as they try to keep up with 'relentless' change, inquiry hears

Government advisers, unions and charities say schools are unwittingly breaking the law because of the sheer volume of new legislation being passed.

An inquiry into the impact on schools of statutory instruments - changes in the law that do not require a bill to go through Parliament - has heard that schools regularly transgress the law because of excessive workload.

To date, evidence given to the House of Lords inquiry overwhelmingly favours a slimmed down system of regulation.

The National Union of Teachers estimated there were now more than 30,000 rules regulating education in England and Wales.

In its evidence to the inquiry, the union said: "Anecdotal evidence from teachers suggests widespread ignorance of legal requirements and significant non-compliance. Even when they are known, the rules are often considered bureaucratic and lacking clear purpose."

The National Association of Head Teachers echoed these concerns (see panel), gave examples of regulations causing a problem, and suggested regulations should only come into force twice a year, in April and October.

But the Association of School and College Leaders said it was not the use of statutory instruments so much as the overwhelming volume of government activity that caused the problem.

It recognised that such secondary legislation had the advantage of enabling errors to be corrected relatively easily.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers had a similar view and called on the Government to place more trust in teachers.

The Government's own Implementation Review Unit described how schools were "swamped" with well-intentioned advice from local authorities and others who often "misinterpret andor embroider and gold plate" what started off as relatively simple advice.

The unit - a panel of heads, teachers and bursars set up to advise officials on how to minimise the burden on schools - warned that in large schools, keeping up with all the legislation coming from government was a significant issue, and in smaller schools it made the role of heads unmanageable.

The unit also said it was not right that the 350,000 volunteers who worked as school governors were putting themselves at risk of receiving penalties for non-compliance. The National Governors' Association described the pace of change in schools as "unrelenting". It said: "For professionals in schools, the endless piecemeal change has become one of the main reasons given for leaving the job.

"It isn't unruly and undisciplined children that are forcing good teachers and governors out of our schools - it's unruly and undisciplined legislation."

The Association of Directors of Children's Services pointed out that the most recent edition of the Government's guide to the law for school governors is 240 pages long.

Mela Watts, director of school performance and reform at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, wrote: "The department takes this issue of minimising burdens on schools extremely seriously.

"However, there will always be room for improvement and lessons to be learnt."


The National Association of Head Teachers provided the House of Lords inquiry with examples of problematic primary school regulations. One concerned confusion over Display Energy Certificates requirements. While the regulations make clear that a certificate - providing an energy rating of the school building - must be publicly displayed and the "occupier" is responsible for this, it is not clear who the "occupier" is: the headteacher, the governing body, the local authority, or perhaps the pupils?

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