The education system is being gripped by “excessive risk-aversion” because of concerns that schools will be sued if children are injured, it was claimed.
A study published by the Centre for Policy Studies warned that millions of pounds was being spent by schools and local authorities every year settling legal challenges.
It emerged that one council in Derbyshire was forced to pay £40,000 after a pupil broke a leg on a school trip. A further £30,000 was handed to a family in Cornwall after a pupil off a bench, £25,000 was paid out in Knowsley when a child fell out of a tree, a student in Medway was awarded £13,000 after being hit by a falling goalpost and £14,150 was paid out to a Plymouth pupil when a test tube shattered during a science experiment.
The study said the pay-outs underlined the extent to which the compensation culture was now “ingrained in the national psyche as a warped form of normal behaviour”.
Kent University’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, which carried out the study, said litigation was “bleeding the health and education services dry”.
Payouts by the NHS Litigation Authority alone have trebled in the last decade to £911m in 2010/11. The organisation’s potential liabilities now stand at £16.8bn, it emerged.
Professor Frank Furedi, the study’s co-author, said: “The increasing fear of litigation is extremely damaging to the professionalism of doctors, nurses and teachers. It erodes professional autonomy, stifles innovation, leads to defensive practices in both hospitals and schools and encourages greater bureaucracy.
“‘Best practice’ is now defined as having checked all the boxes in a quality assurance form rather than doing what is best for the patient or pupil.”
The report quoted a 2010 study that revealed as many as 10 children a week are securing pay-outs after suing schools and local councils for injuries picked up in classrooms, sports fields and playgrounds. In total, some £2.25m was awarded in just 12 months.
Researchers criticised a rise in the number of “bizarre and costly” claims made against schools.
In Doncaster, a pupil won £3,000 after suffering cuts from rose bushes, £2,500 was handed to a child in Bradford injured while cutting up fruit and in Brighton a £7,000 pay-out was made when a pupil fell through the roof of an air raid shelter after climbing to retrieve a ball.
The study – The Social Cost of Litigation – said that pay-outs have led to “excessive risk-aversion within schools”, particularly at a time of austerity when public money is already being squeezed.
“This has taken the form of banning playground games, or restricting school trips: to the point where some teachers have been taking their pupils on ‘trips’ in the school playground because of litigation fears,” said the report.
Prof Furedi called for new curbs to be placed on the “culture of litigation and litigation avoidance” in Britain.
“We need to look beyond ambulance-chasers and greedy lawyers to the cultural conditions that have allowed litigious sentiments to flourish as common sense,” he said. “In particular, we need to challenge the expectation that professional ‘best practice’ in the public sector should be measured by the absence of complaints or litigation.”