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Be careful out there

An emergency in the classroom can create legal pitfalls for an assistant. Bruni de la Motte offers advice

In today's workplace, the issues of health and safety have a high profile. This compounds the worries and uncertainties of employers and employees alike as to what their obligations are.

Teaching assistants are particularly affected because they are in a position of sole or joint responsibility for groups of vulnerable children. Having responsibility for school children is onerous in itself, but emergencies can often force teaching assistants into having to make uncomfortable decisions. What obligations do they have if they are left, even momentarily, in charge of children without a teacher present? What should they do if a child needs medication? What if they are supervising sports or swimming lessons and there is an accident, a broken arm or near-drowning?

There are clear guidelines for such situations. On the administering of medicine, for instance, they need to be fully aware of the risks and the onus is on them if they become involved. Should a child need regular medication it is vital that clear guidelines are laid down by the school - and that the teaching assistant is made aware of them. This is to protect both the child and the assistant.

First of all, assistants must be made aware that they are under no obligation, as non-medically trained people, to administer medication or supervise a child taking it. Staff who volunteer to administer medicines should not agree to do so without first receiving appropriate information and training specific to the child's medical needs. There should be a clear written policy in all schools, communicated to all staff.

Anyone administering medication or dealing with an emergency involving supervising children should keep written records. These could be essential evidence in any subsequent disciplinary hearing or litigation.

Where staff are asked to supervise sporting activities, they should ensure that someone with the appropriate training and skills is present if they do not have these themselves. For swimming lessons, for example, a lifeguard should always be present. Certainly, no medical assistance should be given beyond basic first aid to ensure that a child is removed from danger and made comfortable, unless that member of staff has had the appropriate medical training. Help or assistance from a qualified person should be sought immediately.

In any case where school staff are unsure of their rights or obligations in terms of health and safety issues, they should ask for expert guidance. This is available from their trade union or the Health amp; Safety Executive Bruni de la Motte is UNISON National Education Officer

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