Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)

1 NOVEMBER 2004

MR STEVE SINNOTT, DR FIONA HAMMANS, MS KATHRYN JAMES AND MS CHRIS KEATES

  Q140 Jonathan Shaw: On residential?

  Ms Keates: On residential things in terms of false allegations that have arisen, and there can be a variety. It is not just sexual abuse of people, which is what people immediately think of, it is actually physical abuse and a number of other things.

  Q141 Jonathan Shaw: You could provide us with a number of incidences?

  Ms Keates: I can provide you with the statistics we have on false allegations and the number of incidents on that, yes. [9]

  Q142 Jonathan Shaw: Has that gone up?

  Ms Keates: Over the time that we have been tracking that, I would say that the proportion has probably stayed the same of those, but the whole issue for us, of course, of false allegations, is much wider than the visits.

  Q143 Jonathan Shaw: So you are not sure that the proportion has gone up; it has stayed about the same, despite your press release, which says, "Society is increasingly litigious and no longer appears to accept the concept of general accident." Therefore, you are advising your members not to go on these trips. So it is not going up, but it is increasing, the problem is increasing. My concern is are you, is your union, actually trying to find the solution to the problem or are you the problem? You do these press releases prior to coming before the Committee, you do not have the statistics to back them up and then we see headlines like this from your press release. Are you the problem?

  Ms Keates: No, we are not the problem. In fact, we have been raising these issues for a number of years. That is not the first time there has been press coverage of that. I am sorry if that has caused you concern. In our evidence, in section 28, we actually list the work that we have now been doing with the DfES on the issue of trying to find solutions to some of the issues we have identified, and the issue of false allegations is not the major issue in terms of the advice we are giving to members, as we detail in our evidence. In fact, last April the Government recognised the validity of some of our concerns and, as we detail in our evidence, we have been working constructively with DfES officials to look at a range of processes that might actually start to minimise the risks and address some of the concerns that we have about protecting staff that go on educational visits. So we are not at all the problem, but we have a responsibility to our members to give them clear advice about the risks they might face. We also have an equal responsibility to try and raise and put forward constructive suggestions as to how they can be addressed, and we have certainly done that with the Government and we have listed the areas that at the moment are in progress with the DfES on the areas of concern that we have listed.

  Q144 Jonathan Shaw: The final question for you, Chris. What is your union's assessment of the main findings of the Ofsted report Outdoor Education: Aspects of Good Practice? What is your assessment of the main findings?

  Ms Keates: As we said at the time that was published, we recognise the value of outdoor education and some of the activities that are taking place. The questions that we pose are: are all of those activities ones that schools and teachers and sports staff should be conducting, and, in that context, there are still the risks posed that we have been raising. We are not a union that is opposing educational visits—that has never been our position and our evidence makes that quite clear—but we have a responsibility to our members to point out concerns and we have a responsibility to make sure that we have put forward constructive suggestions to government as to how to address that; and we believe we have done that.

  Q145 Jonathan Shaw: There was very little in your evidence to suggest that you embraced outdoor education. It was mainly about the concerns about litigation and workforce. I have to say, that is in stark contrast with the other trade unions that talked about the benefits of outdoor education. As I say, in your evidence there is a lot that talks about increasing numbers and broad brush statements, and, when we ask you about the specifics, the numbers are not going up?

  Ms Keates: I did not realise that what the Committee was inquiring into was for us to tell you the benefits of outdoor education. I thought what you wanted us to do was to highlight things that you might want to take on board in your inquiry in terms of some of the issues that are facing teachers that conduct these issues. I could have written several pages about the benefits, but there is plenty of research and well-documented evidence. My concern was to put to you issues that you might want to consider and also to show the progress that we were making on addressing some of those very taxing issues for schools, for teachers and for our head teacher members.

  Q146 Chairman: Can I just intervene. You would not be surprised that this Committee is particularly interested in your decision as a union to advise your members not to participate?

  Ms Keates: I understand that.

  Q147 Chairman: That is very important. In many ways it is quite a shocking decision. When was it made?

  Ms Keates: It was made over four years go, and we have reviewed it on an annual basis and raised it with the Government on an annual basis, and it has arisen out of casework, an increasing amount of casework that we were experiencing, some with some very tragic incidents. Some of the very high profile cases that have been in the press have involved NASUWT members and we reviewed the advice and we included that as an annex, [10]which shows that we give that strong advice but we also do provide a check-list for people who may say, "Despite that advice, we actually want to accompany these trips." We respect the position of people who do that, and that is why we have not been sitting back and saying we are not interested in educational visits, that is why we have been trying to engage the Government in looking at some of the things that we think can make sure that some of these valuable activities can go ahead but also minimise the risk to the staff that get involved in those. I think that is a perfectly legitimate position for us as a union to take.

  Q148 Helen Jones: Can I ask you to clarify one thing in the written evidence you have given us? You say in, I think, point six that society is increasingly litigious. We understand that. It says, "It also fails either to understand that perfect judgment, total attentiveness and faultless foresight are beyond normal human capacity or to accept that in the best ordered of activities things will occasionally go wrong. Schools, therefore, find themselves increasingly vulnerable to the growing compensation culture." I am not quite sure where you are coming from here, because that is not what the law says. The law does not expect perfect judgment, total attentiveness and faultless foresight; it expects people to take the precautions that a reasonable person would take. So how are you getting from one of those statements to the other: because that seems to me to be legally faulty—untrue, shall I say?

  Ms Keates: No, it is not untrue.

  Q149 Helen Jones: It is. That is not what the law on negligence is?

  Ms Keates: I am not arguing here the law on negligence, I am arguing on the feedback we get in terms of the casework that we have, reports that we get from our head teacher members and reports from teachers about what they are finding in terms of any accident, and, through your previous questions to the DfES officials, you were raising the issue of the growing litigious nature of the accident culture, and educational visits are part of that. The feedback we get regularly from our members and from local casework is that accidents, whether they are on school trips, or in the school playgrounds, or in the classroom can often at the very first stages, simply things that we would probably at school ourselves have brushed off, a trip in the playground now can result in a solicitor's letter because there are people who are always looking for something to blame. That does not mean that all of them go as far as proceedings, but it is a symptom of a compensation culture that there is not a genuine accident any more.

  Q150 Helen Jones: I could write you a solicitor's letter today, but just because you get one does not mean people have to pay compensation. It might not be worth the paper it is written on, frankly. So is not your dispute rather with schools and LEAs who settle claims which have no real basis in law at all rather than with the law as it stands?

  Ms Keates: The issue . . . That is a different point than whether we have—

  Q151 Helen Jones: It is not?

  Ms Keates: No; it is a different point than whether we have evidence to sustain that there is a growing compensation culture. The fact that letters are now sent for things that at one time would have been dismissed as a childish accident in a playground is evidence of the compensation culture. The fact that people pay out, we are concerned and have raised it where we have come across it with schools or local authorities who, to avoid lengthy exchanges with solicitors, actually will settle because that does actually fuel the compensation culture.

  Q152 Helen Jones: But that does not mean your members are being taken to court, does it?

  Ms Keates: Our members quite often are enjoined in the first stages of litigation. Whether they end up in the full proceedings is an entirely different matter.

  Q153 Helen Jones: If these are cases that are being settled then your members are not being taken to court, are they?

  Ms Keates: It depends how the investigation is conducted by the local authority, whether the police are involved or where the people making the claims have gone to. There is a whole variety of circumstances in which that can happen. We do not make those kinds of comments lightly, and this has been generally accepted as a problem, hence the Government is actually working with us on some of these issues because they have had reports from schools, and I am sure my colleagues here can say about the pressure that many head teachers come under from solicitors who are writing letters at the drop of a hat that cause problems for schools. The other issue that we have, of course, is that our members may not be subject to criminal proceedings but can be subject to disciplinary investigations, which can be extremely stressful.

  Q154 Helen Jones: Have you any figures for us again on the number of these cases where people are writing to schools or sending them solicitor's letters after school trips or any other sort of outdoor education and the numbers that are settled, as opposed to the numbers that are totally spurious and do not even get this couple of hundred pounds pay out?

  Ms Keates: If I can say to you, I think it would be very unusual for a school nowadays not to have received at least one of these letters after some sort of accident. That would be extremely unusual. What the figures are in terms of settling, of course, that depends on a school and local authority policy. Some local authorities will not settle on these and they will take them forward. Only if our members are involved would we have any details of that case, but my colleagues in other unions have expressed the same concerns in meetings. They may take different advice in terms of what they ask their members to do, but the issue of teachers and other workers in schools and head teachers becoming increasingly vulnerable to legal action is a huge concern throughout the profession.

  Q155 Helen Jones: So how many of these cases have involved your members recently?

  Ms Keates: I have not got those figures. I will provide the figures for you. [11]

  Q156 Chairman: The reason we are pushing you on this, it is fundamentally important to our inquiry, but on the one hand you said no cooperation. If all your members took your advice, basically out of school activity would cease, would they not, more or less? If they took your advice.

  Ms Keates: Yes, and, of course, one of the things I think we all regret is the fact that the number of visits for some of the things that are curriculum related and have an educational validity, there is more concern and caution about taking those now. That is why we think it is important that you do have this inquiry, because one of the things we propose is supporting schools through local authorities with a check-list that can look at making sure that the risks are minimised by the trips that have been taken have got that direct curriculum—

  Q157 Chairman: Let us continue. What would make you as a union change your mind in terms of what assurances the Government could give or LEAs could give, or a combination of factors? This is a four-year policy. We have had it for a long time, although it comes as a surprise, I see from the Daily Express. You have never had it!

  Ms Keates: Indeed.

  Q158 Chairman: They are not that clever at the Daily Express, obviously, because they blame the Government for this policy, but, tell us, we are trying to find out what would change your mind and make you cooperate?

  Ms Keates: All of the items we have listed in section 28 of our evidence. The consistent monitoring of the visits, the support from their employer for teachers who actually take these visits, because they are actually abandoned when litigation starts or there is a particular problem. We would like a much firmer application of the Government guidance on monitoring of the educational validity, because again there is a lack of consistency.

  Q159 Chairman: There is a difficulty there, Chris, is there not, because evidence that this Committee has had said there is nothing like the joy of seeing a child who has seen the sea for the first time, and you might say that for a child from a deprived background a visit to the Blackpool pleasure beach is wonderful.


9   Ev 89. Back

10   Ev 75. Back

11   Ev 89. Back


 
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