Schools in new legal minefield

6th October 2000 at 01:00
Father's appeal after daughter was denied school place may signal flood of cases using new law. Karen Thornton reports.

AN 11-year-old girl turned down by the secondary school next door to her Birmingham home could be among the first challengers of the education sector under new human rights laws.

School admissions and exclusions procedures, special needs services, employment rights, bullying and discipline issues could all face legal action as a result of the Human Rights Act, which came into effect this week.

Its incorporation into British law will save individuals long and expensive trips to Strasbourg to uphold rights including life, family life, privacy, education, freedom of expression and religion, and equality.

However, critics say it is a complainers' charter, and warn school uniform policies and "fagging" in private schools - where younger pupils carry out menial chores for older ones - could be under threat.

Lawyers have dismissed such claims as "nonsense", but the National Association of Head Teachers has warned its members they could face legal suits from both bullies and their victims if they mishandle such cases.

However, the first challenges in education may prove to be on technical and procedural matters - albeit with the potential to undermine major planks of Government policy.

George Kafetzis plans to consult lawyers over whether he can challenge the school next door for refusing his daughter a place. Eleven-year-old Maria, who is Greek Orthodox, was turned down because St Thomas Aquinas was over-subscribed and prioritises children baptised Catholic in its admissions criteria.

Mr Kafetzis says if he'd known the school was unlikely to admit Maria, he would have put another local school - also now full - down as their first choice.

He believes church school admission policies discriminate against local children, whose tax-paying parents contribute to the bulk of school costs.

"I pay taxes and VAT. What do I pay it for if I can't get my daugter in to my local school?" he said.

Headteacher Jim Foley said he didn't know the implications of the Act in relation to voluntary-aided school admission criteria, and would need legal advice.

But he added: "We have published criteria which the governors have followed, and under those criteria Maria is a non-Catholic applicant without older siblings in the school.

"As such she falls in the lowest admissions category. In previous years we have been able to take non-Catholic applicants.

"It is a real tough one. I believe the governors have followed the criteria scrupulously, and that the appeals panel has done likewise."

Government policies on special needs could also be challenged. The Independent Panel for Special Educational Advice, a parent support group, is considering making a case against parts of the proposed new disability rights Bill. They are angry that the Bill will say it is not discriminatory to refuse disabled students "aids and services".

The rationale is that these needs - for example, for adapted computer keyboards - can be met via the special needs statementing process.

However, IPSEA is concerned that changes to statutory guidance on special needs will erode the current requirement that all provision is specified on statements.

A Department for Education and Employment spokesman said challenges similar to Maria's were unlikely to suceed.

"The right to education is a right to access to the system as a whole, not to a particular school. Legislation allows a school to admit children in line with an arrangement with its local education authority which is designed to preserve the religious character of the school," the spokesman said. "Provided there is alternative local provision, it is quite lawful for as school with a religious character to refuse admission on grounds of religious faith."

See www.homeoffice.gov.ukhracthramenu.htm for background and guidance on the Human Rights Act, or www.tes.co.uk for DfEE advice about the Act


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