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In loco parentis?

When children are dropped at the school gates, the law says teachers must assume the role of 'replacement parent'. Virginia Hunt explains some of the term's complex legal implications

I left school recently after a training day and happened to bump into some pupils who were with their mum. When I greeted mum, she retorted hotly:

"Don't talk to me - I've had to put up with these kids all day!" But such days are a rarity, and on most days it is the teacher who is charged with "putting up" with children.

Under the Children Act 1989, teachers have a duty of care towards their pupils, traditionally referred to as 'in loco parentis'. Legally, while not bound by parental responsibility, teachers must behave as any reasonable parent would do in promoting the welfare and safety of children in their care. The idea dates back to the 19th century when courts were first coming to terms with teachers' responsibilities. It was during this period that case law established that a teacher should act "as a prudent father".

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 also requires schools to show a duty of care towards pupils' safety and well-being, although not their 'welfare', in so far as this is practicable.

Teachers are very often unsure where the line should be drawn between the role of teacher and that of social worker. Indeed, teachers have increasingly become not merely educators, but also mentors in their pupils'

all-round personal development.

I have known teachers who have kept breakfast supplies for children who have missed out at home, and others who have washed soiled clothes on the pretext that the child has had an 'accident' at school. In recent years, many schools have set up breakfast clubs as well as after-school clubs to help support working parents and to provide children with essential nourishment at the start of the school day.

Citizenship is now also part of the curriculum, as is health and sex education in which teachers must introduce a whole range of issues such as personal hygiene, respect for others and safe sex. Teachers are often entrusted with confidential details of a child's personal background, perhaps related to child protection issues and links with social services, or perhaps even through information volunteered by the family or the children themselves.

Increasingly, organising school trips has become a nightmarish dimension of the job. This is a shame because there was a time when school trips were regarded as good fun and a valuable part of the curriculum, providing children with unique opportunities for new learning experiences. But a number of tragic cases have increased parental anxiety and served to highlight teachers' vulnerability more than ever before. The teachers'

union NASUWT now advises its members not to lead trips because of the increase in litigation related to them.

As the law stands, teachers are legally responsible for students in their care during a trip, but given that one cannot anticipate every possible danger, court rulings tend to place emphasis on what is reasonable under particular circumstances. The Court of Appeal recently overturned a High Court ruling (Chittock v Woodbridge) in favour of the school, ruling that the teacher in question had acted "within the range of reasonable responses" for a supervisor of his experience.

Chris Lowe, of the Secondary Heads Association, is among a group of lawyers who advocate a move away from the idea of 'in loco parentis'. He believes it should be replaced by a definition of how a "reasonable teacher" should behave under a range of circumstances. Certainly, the role of the teacher has led to a great confusion in the profession and in society more generally. Often there are no simple answers, but there are some guidelines that can stand you in good stead (see above).

Virginia Hunt is a part-time teacher at John Stainer primary school in Brockley, south London


* Plan school trips carefully. The DfES lays down strict guidelines. Follow your school's procedure and always make sure you have adequate staff ratios - also that any volunteers are trustworthy. I've had bitter experience of taking parent helpers who've been more of a liability than their offspring.

* If you're concerned about a child's welfare, speak to the teacher in charge of child protection. Record your concerns and remember that any disclosure must be reported, so don't promise confidentiality.

* You are not responsible for a child after school hours. Any child not collected by 5pm can be referred to Social Services. Parents are responsible for their children's attendance and punctuality and there have been recent prosecutions against offending parents.

* You do not have to supervise pupils at lunchtime. Nor do you have to take part in clubs outside teaching hours.

* You are not obliged to administer medicines to pupils, although you may be asked to oversee children's use of asthma pumps, for example. You should keep a list of pupils who have medical conditions. Unwell children should not be in school, and parents must provide contact details in case of emergencies.

* Get trained help immediately if an accident occurs.

* Corporal punishment is unlawful. If children endanger themselves or others, you can use "reasonable force" to restrain them, but tread with caution here as your actions could be legally challenged and you could risk being assaulted.

* In the worst case, if you're accused of negligence you must seek advice. As your employer, your school has vicarious liability and you should not be held personally responsible where you have maintained a professional standard of supervision.

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