D? E? Get me a lawyer!

Parents whose children get poor exam results tend to be worried, frustrated, angry, or all three. But now, like the 'Coronation Street' actor Johnny Briggs, more and more of them are considering taking schools to court. Will anyone win? By Jack O'Sullivan
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It's what Mike Baldwin, Coronation Street's hard-nosed businessman, would have done. Faced with his daughter failing unexpectedly in her exams, Mike would have downed a stiff Scotch, delivered a lengthy speech to Alma, his long-suffering wife, about "damned incompetent teachers" and reached for his lawyers.

And so life imitates art. This week, Johnny Briggs, who has played Baldwin for decades, is backing his daughter's threat to sue a school that promised so much yet appears to have delivered so little. Teachers at Holy Trinity School in Kidderminster told 18-year-old Jennifer Briggs that she could expect a mix of A and B grades in her three A-levels. So everyone was surprised when she achieved only a D in Art and an E in English. A pass in Religious Education is said to be guaranteed provided you don't sacrifice a goat in the exam room, so Jennifer's U for "unclassified" was even more extraordinary.

Johnny Briggs, who paid pounds 1,300 a term for his daughter's schooling, does not feel he has had value for money. And Jennifer fears her career has been jeopardised. She only scraped on to a foundation art course, when winning a place should have been a breeze.

Any legal action could take years. And the lawyers do not rate Jennifer's chances - it would be very hard to prove that the failure lay with the school and not the pupil. But this latest row is just the start of a wave of cases that is going to force schools to top up their insurance policies.

For more than 10 years, the last government championed parent power, ran down the abilities of teachers and declared many schools to be "failing". Now the pushiest parents and pupils are taking the next step: seeking legal remedy. We are on the verge of perhaps millions of pounds being paid out by schools that did not do their job properly.

Later this month, the first case will be judged. Mark Christmas, 23, is suing a Hampshire school over claims that his teachers failed to spot his reading and writing difficulty, dyslexia, until he was 15. Today, Mr Christmas is a childcare officer in a residential school in Dorking, looking after 10-year-old boarders. But he reckons he could have done better for himself. If he wins his case, he can expect perhaps a six-figure sum in compensation for lost earnings.

This is, of course, yet another symptom of the litigious society. The medical profession is already experienced in this field. The Medical Defence Union has announced that pay-outs for claims against doctors are up 30 per cent in a year. Even nurses are busy suing - so far they have secured pounds 8.5m for their bad backs, the Royal College of Nursing revealed recently.

But changing attitudes to schools also reflect the "outcomes society", the notion that institutions are required to deliver certain results, and that if they don't, there should be hell to pay. We don't just want compensation if the train is late, or if the phone isn't fixed on time. In a world of league tables for hospitals, schools, even surgeons' performance, it is no longer enough just to say that an institution did its best.

It is easy see why some of those who have passed through the schools system want compensation. These days it is virtually impossible to get a job without academic qualifications. You need GCSEs to stack shelves in some supermarkets.

And a mistake in predicting results can have devastating consequences. These predictions are passed on to universities, and are the basis for offers of places in advance of A-levels. In one recently highlighted case, this problem lost Vicky Hornby her place to read law. Her school under- estimated her potential, so no university would give her a place. By the time she got her A-level results, which were good enough to enable her to do law, there were no places left and she has had to read politics instead.

So, in all sorts of ways, what schools do really matters. You need only listen to Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, detailing the thousands of useless teachers to realise that some of them are blithely carrying on, apparently oblivious to the damage they are doing.

There are plenty of lawyers prepared to take cases. Jack Rabinowicz, at the London firm Teacher, Stern, Selby, reckons he has 50 on his books. "There are three categories of cases," he says. "You have those of children with special needs who were not given what they required. So, for example, I am dealing with the case of an autistic child whose condition was not identified until the child was 15. Then there are instances where schools have failed to protect adequately against bullying. And finally there are the schools that Ofsted has judged as failing, where the parents are seeking compensation for the inadequate education that was offered."

The House of Lords opened the way in 1995 for these cases to be tried, when it rejected attempts to have the Mark Christmas claim struck out along with several others. It ruled that schools had a duty not only to keep pupils safe, but also to educate them properly in accordance with the expectations of society.

Sebastian Sharp was one of the first beneficiaries of the new era of education litigation - although his victory involved an out-of-court settlement, so it set no precedent. Last November, days before his case came to trial, he received a pounds 30,000 settlement after alleging that constant bullying at a school in Richmond, Surrey, had affected his education and left him traumatised. He claimed in the writ that he had been regularly kicked, punched and insulted from the age of 11, when he started at the school, until he ran away at 15. The school denied the allegations, but its insurers paid up on the grounds of the cost involved in a long case. After that settlement, one solicitor set up a bullying litigation helpline.

It is not clear where the rush to courts will end. Normally, civil actions must be brought within three and certainly not more than six years of the offence. That would seem to rule out the 40-year-olds who ring up Mr Rabinowicz to say they left school without being able to read and write and ask whether they can sue. Nevertheless, there is an unresolved suit of a woman, educated in the 1960s, who says her school experience led her to attempt suicide. She claims that the time limitation should not apply to her. She may win her argument - in cases of residential child abuse, people in their thirties have successfully won damages for what happened decades before.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says his members are concerned about the trend, which has the potential to become a large and expensive problem. But he cautions would-be litigants that there will be no gravy train. "There are many hurdles that have to be overcome," he says. "Claimants must demonstrate that they made little or no contribution to their own failure, then they have to demonstrate that the failure was a result of poor teaching. Thirdly, they have to demonstrate that they have suffered damage, or at least not done as well as they might have done. These are all difficult hurdles."

Mr Rabinowicz echoes Mr Hart's caution. "You're not home and dry just because the school has been shown to have failed," he says. "You have to show cause and effect." He knows that schools are becoming much more astute at defending themselves. "We all know about 'doctoring' medical records," he says. "I now find that educational records are being 'teachered' to remove the more unfortunate remarks." The battle between the schools and solicitors is about to begin and the educators are waking up to it. "It is amazing how school records go wandering when the solicitor comes asking for access," laments Mr Rabinowiczn

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