Monday, May 07, 2007

Legal predators on British teachers

Lawyers who encourage parents and pupils to make speculative allegations of abuse against teachers in the hope of winning financial compensation risk are destroying the reputation of thousands of teachers, a teaching union has said. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said that lawyers working on a "no win, no fee" basis were fuelling a rise in malicious allegations against teachers, made in the knowledge that local authorities would often pay complainants without even investigating their allegations.

Mick Brookes, the union's general secretary, said that "a lottery mentality" prompted children and parents to try their luck by levelling spurious allegations to get a payout. "If it is thought that by using a `no win, no fee' solicitor some payout can be got from the local authority, parents at times don't hesitate to go there," he said at the union's annual conference in Bournemouth.

Another head teacher said that she had been astonished to learn that a parent at her school had been paid compensation by the local authority after complaining that teachers had been negligent in caring for her daughter after an accident during a PE lesson. The head, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals from the parent concerned, said that the local authority had handed over the money without informing the school or even bothering to find out whether it was true. The school's own investigation later concluded that the accusation was unfounded.

Dame Mary MacDonald, the head teacher of the Riverside Community Primary School in North Shields, Tyneside, who has been the victim of a false allegation, said that she knew of an insurance company that advised local education authorities to settle claims that might exceed 12,000 pounds if they were to reach court. "Parents know they can put in a claim for anything up to 12,000 and it will never go to court," she said. Dame Mary said that nothing in her three decades as a teacher prepared her for the day the mother of a 3-year-old girl nearly destroyed her career by accusing her of slapping the child. Even though both the police and the local authority - who were called in by Dame Mary that same day to investigate - completely exonerated her, a story soon began circulating on the local housing estate that Dame Mary had kicked the child all around the school hall. This was overheard by a social worker and reported to another branch of the police. Soon calls for Dame Mary's resignation were being made.

"No matter what kind of reputation you have, mud sticks. The problem is that the minute you are accused you are assumed guilty," she said. Dame Mary said that schools should have the right to sue parents who make false allegations against head teachers and their staff and to exclude pupils who do the same.

The NAHT wants teachers who are accused of harming a child to be given anonymity while their cases are investigated - a position that has been rejected by the Government, but that is supported by the Conservatives. The union also wants accused teachers who are cleared to have the right to make a public statement clearing their names. Research conducted by the union among 25 local authorities suggested that the problem of false allegations was not as rare as the Government has indicated. One local authority had suspended 50 teachers in the past five years. But the survey also found that, in some areas, in nearly four cases in ten involving a teacher who had been suspended following an allegation, the accused was later exonerated.



Climate scientists, economists and policy researchers are all in agreement: limiting long-term global warming is achievable at a "negligible" cost. Now, the responsibility for action lies in the hands of politicians, they say.

The cost estimates for stabilising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere were released on Friday in the latest chapter of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report: it will cost between 0.2% and 3.0% of global GDP by 2030 (see Price placed on limiting global warming).

The IPCC cost estimates can be put in perspective by comparing them with what the average voter would have to contribute, says Ralf Martin of the London School of Economics, UK. In 2005, UK households had an average weekly income of 350 pounds ($700). Reducing that by 0.2% to achieve the smallest greenhouse gas reduction considered by the IPCC would cost each household 36 pounds ($72) a year. At 3% per year, achieving the greatest reduction considered would cost 546 ($1092).

"The cheaper scenario would mean going out to dinner one time less a year, whereas the higher figure gets into the range of having or not having a car," says Martin. "The higher figure might be a hard sell. However, I would suggest that whether either figure is acceptable depends largely on how it will be sold to voters."

Benito Mueller, a climate policy researcher at Oxford University in the UK agrees: "All these things are open to spin. If you put it in so many trillions, everyone gets frightened. But once you put the numbers into perspective they must become politically acceptable. If not, we are being totally irrational."


Blindness cure for some?

A British hospital has made the world's first attempt to treat blindness with a revolutionary gene therapy. Surgeons at the Moorfields Eye Hospital in London operated on Robert Johnson, who was born with a rare sight disorder known as Leber's congenital amaurosis (LCA), which deteriorates with age. Mr Johnson, 23, who had genes inserted into one eye, could see only outlines during the day and very little at night before having the procedure yesterday. He is one of a dozen young patients selected for the first clinical trial to test the new therapy, which has already proved successful at restoring the sight of dogs in tests.

It will be months before the researchers know whether their work has been a success, but it is thought that the therapy could be used to treat a wide range of inherited sight disorders in adults and children. The LCA disorder is caused by a defect in a gene called RPE65, which prevents the light-sensitive layer of cells in the retina at the back of the eye from working properly. Usually these are cells that detect light, but in Mr Johnson's case they are damaged and prevent him from seeing properly.

The operation, conceived by researchers from University College London, involved injecting working copies of the defective gene into the back of the eye. Surgeons used a harmless virus or "vector" to carry the gene into the cells. It is hoped that the replacement genes will enable the retina to detect light - and eventually restore Mr Johnson's sight. The trial, funded by the Department of Health, involves 12 adults and children with LCA, for which there are currently no effective treatments.

During preliminary studies, the vision of dogs with the defect was restored to the extent that they were able to walk through a maze without difficulty; something they could not do before the treatment. The purpose of the Moorfields trial is to find out how safe and effective the intervention is for humans. The researchers hope that their work could lead to ways to treat more common sight problems, such as age-related macular degeneration, which affects about 250,000 Britons. Most previous gene therapies have been developed in an attempt to treat different types of cancer.

Before surgery, Mr Johnson told the BBC that he had mixed feelings. He said: "It's very difficult to say how I'm feeling. I keep ranging from extreme nervousness to a bit of excitement."

Professor Robin Ali, the lead researcher, based at the Institute of Ophthalmology, has spent 15 years working with colleagues developing the technique. He said yesterday: "I can't help feeling somewhat apprehensive. There is so much riding on it and we have all been waiting for a very long time." His colleague, James Bainbridge, who carried out the surgery, said that there was no guarantee that it would be a success. However, he added: "It is very encouraging that we can deliver genes to an extremely fragile site in the eye without complications."

The surgery required incredible precision. Robert Maclaren, the assistant surgeon, said yesterday that he was pleased with how things went. "We couldn't have asked for a better result," he said. Professor Ali added: "There are many forms of retinal degeneration, meaning the use of gene therapy treatments must be individually developed, then tested in a separate clinical trial specifically for that disease. "However, the results from this first human trial are likely to provide an important basis for many more gene therapy protocols in the future."


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