21st March 2008 at 00:00
Schools readily accumulate records: records of admissions and attendance, performance, interviews with parents, discipline records, records of SEN assessment, staff records and financial records, and so ad infinitum - or so it feels. Some of these records are statutory - for example, SEN boarding schools must keep a specified set of records on staff - and some are just convenient.

But having created these records, how long should a school keep them? Records for financial audit will usually have a date that is specified by the auditors; all records of expenditure and authorisation of expenditure should be preserved accordingly.

With personal records, a fundamental data protection principle is that they should be kept for no longer than necessary. If in doubt, the decision should be to get rid of them. However, one has only to remember the records on the eventual Soham murderer that Humberside Police mechanically deleted to realise that the deletion of records cannot be a mechanical process. Judgement must be used - and this has become more problematical.

The House of Lords recently reversed a previous decision on the limitation date of claims for deliberate personal injury, which means that if a judge decides to use the discretion this decision affords, a claim may be made, not within six years of the former student's 18th birthday, but at any time that the judge believes to be fair.

The conclusion is likely to be that any record of events or suspicions that may later be relevant to an abuse claim against a former member of staff - and vicariously against the school - must be kept indefinitely. There will be little sympathy from a court if a school has shredded relevant documents.

It will be important to have a clear set of guidelines and, as always, to make sure they are operated as intended.

Richard Bird, Legal consultant to the Association for School and College Leaders.

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