Nigel Baker of Lexicon Employment Law Training focuses on some recent developments in the education field.

Civil claims

Both staff and pupils can suffer injury whilst on school premises. Many such incidents lead to compensation claims and where injury is caused by deliberate conduct, the culprit may also face prosecution, plus disciplinary action by the employer and regulatory professional body.

Teaching unions play an important role in securing compensation for their members who are injured at work. The NASUWT gained a record total of £15.6 million in 2012, a rise of 24% on the previous year. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers secured £1.2 million for injured members and their families in 2012. The National Union of Teachers also provided significant support for members who suffered injury in the course of their jobs. For example, a secondary school teacher in the South West was awarded £382,930 compensation after a pupil slammed his arm in a filing cabinet while trying to grab a confiscated football. The injuries were so serious as to prevent the teacher from working again. A school worker in the North East who intervened to assist a colleague who was being attacked by a pupil was kicked by the pupil and attacked from behind by another student. The victim was awarded £268,787 compensation. A technology teacher who suffered allergies and sinus problems having worked in a poorly ventilated workshop received £240,000 compensation.

Lancashire County Council had to pay £100,000 to a pupil who was hurt when a cupboard fell off a wall at his school injuring him and £49,712 compensation to a child who hurt his hand climbing a gate. According to a Freedom of Information request reply, the council has paid almost £800,000 in total to 100 pupils involved in accidents in the area’s schools over the past five years.

Penalties for truancy

According to the latest figures from the Department for Education (DfE), fines imposed on parents for the truancy of their children has increased significantly. In the year 2011–12, 41,224 penalty notices were issued for a child’s unauthorised absence from school, up from 32,641 in the previous year. More parents are being prosecuted for failing to pay their fines, with 6361 being taken to court, a rise from 5629 in the year before. Encouraging figures, however, are the decrease in the number of pupils who missed at least one month of school without permission (from 6.1% to 5.2%) and the fact that the overall absence rate, which includes both unauthorised and authorised absence, has decreased from 5.8% to 5.1%. Last year, an average of 327,000 pupils were out of school each day compared to 370,000 the previous year. Unsurprisingly, absence from school has a detrimental impact on educational attainment, with those pupils who attend school regularly being four times more likely to achieve five or more good GCSEs, including English and maths, than those who were persistently absent.

Special needs pupils

There is controversy about the proportion of pupils in England who are being categorised as having special needs compared with the rest of Europe. In 2012, 1.6 million children accounting for 19.8% of pupils were designated as having special needs, whereas in some other EU countries the figure is as low as 4%. Special needs categorisation arises where a pupil is registered as having learning difficulties, behavioural problems or physical disabilities that prevent him or her from playing a full part in lessons. Typically, those pupils designated as having special needs are from poor backgrounds, troubled families, those with a history of bad behaviour and children with low exam results. The numbers of pupils in England registered with special needs has come under government scrutiny and the aim is to reduce the numbers. It has also been claimed by one commentator that a system of “skewed incentives” has encouraged schools to “over-classify children” as an excuse for poor performance and that special needs is “often a proxy for socio-economic disadvantage”. Clearly, the system of designating special needs pupils has to be open to scrutiny and command the confidence of all parties, including government.

Dinner lady fully vindicated

The school dinner lady who was held to have been unfairly dismissed after telling the parents of a seven-year-old girl that their child had been tied to a fence and hit with a skipping rope by other pupils, has won her appeal against the reduction in her compensation award by an employment tribunal. The reduction was made on the basis that she had been wrong to speak to the press about the incident and that by going public she had broken her contract of employment. The school had nevertheless unfairly dismissed her by not first carrying out a fair, proper and reasonable investigation into her conduct. A fresh hearing at an employment tribunal will now reassess the amount of compensation originally awarded to her.

Inappropriate comments

The High Court has rejected the appeal of a Seventh-day Adventist teacher who had been given an indefinite ban from classroom teaching because he condemned the “homosexual lifestyle” in front of his pupils. He told his Year 11 class pupils that the way homosexual people lived was disgusting and a sin according to the Bible. The school ban was supported by the Teaching Agency and his appeal was rejected by the court on the basis that it was justified because he had shown a lack of insight in making his inappropriate comments, which meant that he was guilty of unacceptable professional conduct. His legal costs were reported to be £4200 and he must wait two years before he can apply to return to the classroom. The judge stated that the case was not about the right of the teacher to hold sincerely held beliefs based on the Bible in relation to homosexuality or attendance at church on Sundays instead of Saturdays. It had been about how such beliefs and views were manifested in the context of teaching in schools with young people with diverse sexuality, backgrounds and beliefs.

Sexting guidance

Recently issued guidance to schools in England advises teachers to examine pupils’ mobile phones and search devices for explicit photographs or videos if they suspect pupils of “sexting”. According to a study in 2012 by the NSPCC, up to 40% of pupils aged 12 to 14 had been involved in sexting, with teenage girls facing particular pressure from classmates to provide sexually explicit pictures of themselves. The children’s charity BeatBullying found that 38% of young people had received a sexually explicit text or e-mail and more than half of teachers were aware of pupils creating and sharing explicit material. The guidance urges teachers to use the Education Act 2011 which empowers them to search pupils for inappropriate material and seize property deemed to be causing a disruption.

DfE figures show that schools expel an average of 15 children a day for sexual misconduct. More than 3000 children a year are excluded for offences including bullying, sexual assault and sexual harassment. Sexting is one means by which children are being affected by the sexualisation culture of children.

Threatening and aggressive behaviour

A survey of 13,000 teachers conducted by the NASUWT found that, last year, 85% of teachers experienced verbal abuse from pupils and that one in seven teachers had been physically assaulted by a pupil. More than one in five teachers suffered threats of physical violence and 69% said that there was a widespread problem of poor pupil behaviour in schools. According to figures released as a result of a Freedom of Information request in 2012, up to four children a day are caught in school with various weapons, including rifles, knives and knuckle dusters. Almost 1600 weapons were seized from schools in the past five years according to figures from 20 of the 52 police forces. Also worrying was the disclosure that 10% of children aged 11 has been offered drugs and that up to 30,000 had taken substances during 2012.

Last reviewed 12 June 2013