21st March 1997 at 00:00
Q - What are the implications for schools of the recent Appeal Court decision, making a rugby referee responsible for the injury sustained by a player?

A - It is never wise to generalise too much about a specific case, which is determined on the particular facts and circumstances and which, in any case, may still be considered by the House of Lords.

The judges in this case found that the injury had been sustained because the standard of the refereeing had fallen below that which the players were entitled to expect. If it had been held that the referee had applied the laws of the game in a way in which a reasonable referee with the appropriate qualification might be expected to do, then, presumably, the claim for damages would have failed.

The game in question was a club rather than a school match and the referee, being a member of a referees' society, was covered by insurance. A teacher taking a school match might not be a member of a society, but would normally be covered by professional insurance, through membership of a union. His employer would also be covered against its liability.

Insurance is not really the issue, however: no one wishes to be held responsible for a serious injury, whether insured or not, and this judgment must give many people pause for thought before they undertake to supervise activities which involve a significant element of risk.

From the teacher's point of view, it is unwise to referee rugby football or to supervise any other potentially hazardous activity, unless one is qualified by training andor experience to do so. From the head's point of view, there is a duty of care to take reasonable steps to ensure that people without the necessary training or experience are not required or permitted to take on such responsibilities.

Those who are capable of doing so should not be deterred by this judgment, but they must remember that they have a duty to take reasonable care to apply the rules and follow safety guidance appropriate to the activity. It was the absence of that reasonable care which swayed the Court of Appeal in this case.

Q - We discovered stolen property in a pupil's locker, which we had unlocked and searched with a master key. The parents are accusing us of intrusion on privacy, framing their daughter and goodness knows what else. Did we act properly?

A - It was certainly in order for you to search the locker, without the pupil's knowledge, given that you had a good reason to do so. In many ways, though, it might have been better to have done it in the pupil's presence, because that might have avoided the accusations which are now being thrown at you.

If the search was conducted with reliable witnesses, it is unlikely that the parents will be believed. If you did it alone, you may find it more difficult to persuade the parents that justice has been done.

Q - We have a pupil who, with his parents' support, is refusing to work with a specific learning package provided by the English department. What should we do?

A - Neither pupils nor parents can stipulate what should or should not be taught in schools, or specify teaching materials, although parents have the right to withdraw their children from religious education and sex education, if they wish.

If parents have a complaint about the curriculum, they have the right to take it to the school's governing body, but they are obliged to accept that body's adjudication, or to remove their child to a school which is more to their liking.

In this case, the school, having failed to persuade the parent to comply with the school's requirements, may take disciplinary action against the boy for failing to work as required, if need be by excluding him.

Q - I am researching the relationship between schools and separated parents. Could you tell me if the advice you gave on January 4 1994 still holds good?

A - How one's mistakes come to haunt one! Your research should have taken you a little further, to the column of January 28 1994, when I apologised for a lapse in the earlier one.

Just to make it clear beyond any doubt, the Children Act 1989 provides that, unless a court order prescribes otherwise, schools have a duty to treat all those who have parental responsibility for a pupil equally. This means that each parent is entitled to receive copies of school reports and to vote in elections for parent-governors or on a change to the status of the school. They also enjoy an equal right to be consulted on any important decisions relating to the pupil, for example the making of a statement of special educational needs.

The school is entitled to ask for information about where the pupil is normally resident and who will sign absence notes, consent forms for school journeys and so on.

Schools need to take care not to become involved in matrimonial disputes, which are outside their concern, but they also need to be on the alert for attempts by parents to use the school in pursuance of their objectives.

* The TES Management Guide for Heads and Senior Staff, based on Archimedes's Helpline column, has been published by Butterworth-Heinemann at Pounds 14.99, but is available to readers for Pounds 10.99. Tel: 0345 660890

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