SCHOOLS and local education authorities could become liable for the deaths of pupils or staff, under legal changes designed to make companies responsible for disasters such as the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise.
Tragedies such as this week's bus crash in France, involving a school party, from the London borough of Redbridge, and an Edinburgh Boys' Brigade group, could come under the remit of the new law - although there appears to be no suspicion of negligence by the school in this case. Fifteen-year-old Craig Norsworthy was killed and 11 others injured when the groups' coach overturned on the way to an adventure holiday in the Dordogne.
But the new law, proposed by ministers, would also cover more mundane health and safety matters, where negligence or carelessness could endanger staff and students.
The Government is consulting on proposals to introduce a new offence of corporate killing, to ensure that organisations can be held accountable for deaths and injuries resulting from a "management breakdown".
Foundation and voluntary-aided schools, education authorities, universities, and charities would all fall under the aegis of the current proposals. A bus crash on a school-organised trip could lead to corporate charges, where "gross carelessness" and conduct falling far beneath what could reasonably be expected were found to be involved.
Penalties couldinvolve fines, disqualifications for company directors, and orders requiring remedial action.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said he was concerned about the proposals, but that they were unlikely to lead to a flood of cases against schools.
"If a tour company handled the organisation of a school trip, then in 99.9 per cent of cases the governing body or local education authority would have the right to pass liability on to those actually responsible," he said.
Chris Gale, chairwoman of the National Governors' Council, believes most schools already take "all reasonable precautions" when planning school trips, and so the proposed new law will not lead to significant changes in practice.
Making schools subject to corporate killing laws was welcomed by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers on health and safety grounds. Education is already subject to too many exemptions in this area, said assistant general secretary Chris Keates. She said: "We anticipate that the major pressure will fall on employers to review procedures and ensure they are as tight as possible."
A spokesman for Zurich Municipal, which insures many local education authorities, said it was unlikely to lead to immediate increases in premiums.
See www.homeoffice.gov.ukconsultinvmans.htm for the consultation paper.