• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

If schools ban break time for being dangerous, how will children ever grow up?

The compensation culture ­continues to spiral out of ­control. In a world of increasingly frenzied litigation, the traditional concepts of personal responsibility or bad luck have been eroded. Instead, too many people — backed by unprincipled lawyers — see every misfortune, every accident, as a chance to make money.

Now, even the world of education has been gripped by this insidious trend. Schools have become arenas for dubious legal claims, causing severe damage to the process of learning and acting as a drain on badly needed resources.

Twelve years ago, I wrote a report entitled The Hidden Growth of the Culture of Litigation in Schools, which drew attention to the worrying influence of writ-issuing lawyers in our education system. Since then, the problem has become far worse.

Official figures just published show that ten successful legal claims are being mounted every week in schools, with parents and pupils often gaining hefty cash payouts as a result of threats to sue over even the most minor grievances. In one case, a Doncaster pupil was awarded £2,000 after being exposed to bright light during a ­science experiment. In another case, a Surrey pupil was awarded £29,000 after he said he had suffered burns from sitting on a hot radiator. Altogether, £2.25 million was dished out last year to meet compensation demands in schools — money that would have been far better spent in the classroom.

This catalogue of writs only further encourages the national mood of litigious grievance. Now everyone is at it.

Only too typical was the £35,000 handed over to a pupil from Poole in Dorset, who hurt himself while performing the high jump, a settlement which makes a mockery of the very concept of competitive sport.

In the same fashion, a PE teacher from my home county of Kent recently told me that one of his pupils had been awarded £1,200 after his parents threatened the school with legal action over a minor ankle injury that occurred on the football field.  The boy’s foot was not broken or even sprained, yet the head teacher decided that a settlement would be less costly than fighting the action through the courts. The PE teacher is so disillusioned he is considering emigrating to Australia, a country which, he believes, is far more robust than Britain in dealing with this problem.

Teachers themselves are getting in on the act, infected by the compensation virus. One Merseyside teacher was awarded £80,000 after she slipped and fell while walking between school buildings, an accident that left her with a hurt back and hip.

Similarly, a music teacher from the south-west received £40,000 for an injury to her wrist which occurred when a door blew shut on a windy day.

This madness can be found everywhere. Some teachers are taking legal action over claims they have been traumatised by the stress of dealing with unruly pupils.

Many people may argue that such litigants are effectively seeking compensation for being unable to do their jobs properly. Why should the taxpayer reward a professional who is too weak to impose order in the classroom?

Equally vexatious are the legal claims made by former school pupils demanding cash over past instances of alleged bullying.

Not only is the idea of bullying so subjective and elastic as to embrace almost any kind of unpleasantness experienced by children, but it also seems grossly unfair to put such a ­retrospective burden on schools.

But why is this culture spreading so rapidly? One prime factor is the introduction of ‘no-win, no-fee’ litigation by the last Labour government, which, of course, was full of lawyers such as Tony Blair and Jack Straw.

Before this change, litigants had to take the risk that, if they lost their case, they would end up paying all the legal costs of any action, including those of the defendant. But many believe that ‘no-win, no-fee’ liberates them from the consequences of losing and therefore encourages irresponsibility.

As a result, we have a huge litigation industry in Britain, filled with money-grabbing lawyers, many of them ­specialising in the field of education.

Another factor is the rise over the past decade of the fashionable cult of victimhood. We see this graphically in schools where parents take pride in every achievement by their offspring, but conversely never take the blame for their failures.

This lack of responsibility has been exacerbated by the increasing official obsession with health and safety. Even the most basic school activities, such as playground football or science lessons, are held to be full of risks.

Just like litigation, health and safety itself has become a massive and lucrative industry, drowning schools in regulation and creating a climate of permanent anxiety.

There is a strange paradox at work here. The more head teachers and education bureaucrats try to avoid litigation by taking preventative action, such as banning geography trips or competitive sports, the more they play into the hands of the lawyers and the litigants.

This is because, in effect, they are admitting responsibility for every accident, every setback, that takes place on their premises. So the ­culture of litigation creates its own self-fulfilling cycle.

This is all a disaster for education. First of all, the shadow of litigation badly disrupts the normal rhythms of schooling. Creativity disappears. Spontaneity evaporates. Healthy competition is obliterated.

The menace of legal action means that too many pupils are robbed of the chance to go on outdoor adventures and geography trips. Science lessons, especially chemistry, are now emasculated by the removal of practical experiments.

Traditional competitive sports are under constant threat. Only last week, an official report revealed that yoga and cheerleading are now replacing such basic activities.

During my research, I have found that certain schools even ban break times for fear of injuries in the playground.

Meanwhile, traditional competitive sports, which do so much to promote teamwork and provide essential exercise, are under constant threat. Only last week, an official report revealed that yoga and cheerleading are now replacing such basic activities.

The litigation culture is also costing schools a fortune at a time of severe budgetary restraints because of the fiscal deficit. The money to pay successful claims comes not from the heads or the teachers, but from school budgets and therefore ultimately from the taxpayer.

In effect, schools are being robbed. That is why I think it is immoral of parents to pursue these greedy, irresponsible actions.

Above all, we are betraying young people by undermining their capacity to develop resilience. They are being sent the message that they have to be protected against any challenge.

Stress, which is a normal part of human existence, is regarded as dangerous.

Similarly, setbacks are treated as traumatic. So pupils are being denied the chance to learn from the rich experiences that life has to offer.

We are enfeebling a whole generation — at a terrible cost to their future.

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