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Legal issues

IT was the kind of "kickabout" football match that you can see in almost any primary playground. But this one had a tragic conclusion. A full-size leather football struck a boy in the face and he lost the sight of an eye.

A county court judge ruled that Kent County Council had been negligent and the decision was ratified by the Appeal Court at the end of last term. The lower court had found that the breakfast-time accident occurred when the school was officially open and was responsible for its pupils' safety. It had also discovered that although the school prohibited the use of such balls, the ban was often flouted. On this occasion no attempt had been made to enforce the rule.

The Court of Appeal, in dismissing the appeal, added that it would have been reasonable for the school to have checked whether the ban was effective. As it had not done so, the lower court's judgment was correct.

This case illustrates how important it is for schools not only to have policies, rules and procedures, but to ensure that they are properly implemented and monitored.

Much emphasis has been put on risk assessments lately, with publication of the supplements to the Department for Education and Skills' guidance on safety on educational visits. But what a school does with risk assessment is even more important. The accent should be on the adequacy of the safety management that follows the assessment. Three elements of safety management enable schools to avoid or mitigate risks - supervision, protection and training. None of these has to be sophisticated or draconian. The simple test is whether any prudent person would consider that the safety measures taken were "reasonably practicable" under the circumstances.

In this case, the banning of leather footballs was reasonable protection, but the supervision was inadequate, and the training of the pupils to avoid an accident was, according to the court, negligible.

The least a school could do is to issue a directive to duty teams to check the playground games each morning. This could be complemented by reminders in assemblies of the existence of the ban and the reason for it. The trouble is, of course, that playgrounds are only one area of potential danger. Teachers have to make risk assessments every minute of the day in classrooms and corridors. They are actually rather good at it, which is why, statistically, schools are the safest places for children to be.

Refer to: Kearn-Price v Kent C.C. (2002). Enquiries about the Health and Safety of Pupils on Educational Visits guidance(1998) and the supplements published in 2002 can be obtained from the DfES Pupil Health and Safety Team: Tel: 7 925 5536, or visit www.teachernet.gov.ukvisits

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