28th March 1997 at 00:00

If I get married after I retire and die before my wife, will she benefit from my pension?


She will, but only in respect of your contributory service after April 6, 1978. This is because the scheme was altered at that time to allow for such benefits thereafter.


Do you think it would be appropriate for a school to provide classes in scuba diving?


I am very much in favour of the wide variety of sports and recreational activities that schools offer their pupils today. Young people have opportunities to enjoy experiences and acquire skills that were rarely available to previous generations.

As a number of tragic incidents have shown, however, some of these opportunities are not without their risks, and schools have a clear duty to identify those risks and to ensure that all reasonable precautions are taken to keep them to a minimum. This includes checking that the activities are led by qualified instructors, that all appropriate safety procedures are followed, and that no pupil participates who is not equipped or fit to do so.

There are some activities where the risks may be perceived to be greater than anything for which a school is prepared to take responsibility and where a head may conclude that, if young people wish to engage in them, they should do so privately or through a club. Whether scuba diving in general, or the particular proposal which has been offered, is one such activity is ultimately a matter for the head's judgment.


Should the contracts of employment of teachers and school support staff include a confidentiality clause?


It is inevitable that teachers and others who work in schools have access from time to time to information about pupils and others which should be regarded as confidential. It is reasonable for a school, in its staff manual or elsewhere, to establish rules and procedures for handling confidential matters and to regard serious breaches of such rules as grounds for disciplinary action.

It would not seem to be necessary, therefore, to incorporate such a requirement in a contract, which in any case will oblige an employee to abide by such rules and procedures which the employer may from time to time establish. The School Teacher's Conditions of Service Document requires a teacher to work under the reasonable direction of the head, and requirements concerning confidentiality would certainly come under that heading.


Should members of staff or pupils be allowed to bring pets into school?


It all depends on the pet. There are those who keep alligators or snakes, and it could be argued that circumstances alter cases. I once heard of a teacher who rode his horse to school and tied it to a tree in the grounds.

Lots of schools keep their own pets, and they are important educational aids. Encouraging young people to care properly for animals is surely a commendable aim.

This has to be a matter best left to common sense and individual judgments, rather than to blanket rules.


We appointed a teacher last September who has since experienced several epileptic fits. We have discovered that his condition existed before he came to us but he did not disclose it on his application or at interview. Should we dismiss him?


I cannot answer that question, which is one for your governing body to decide, in the light of all the evidence.

If he knowingly made a false declaration with the deliberate intention of deceiving the appointing body, then there is a prima facie case for terminating his contract. If, on the other hand, he can demonstrate that he had not been explicitly required to disclose his condition on the application form or at interview, he may well argue that the fault lies with the school rather than with him.

In practical terms, the governors may wish to take into account the seriousness of his condition and the likelihood of it being a serious obstacle to the proper fulfilment of his duties. Many epileptics are able to work successfully in a variety of situations. Expert medical opinion should be sought before coming to a judgment on the matter.


We are rewriting our school policy on exclusions and we want to list some offences, for example possession of drugs and serious bullying, for which permanent exclusion is automatic. Can we do this?


I think it would be most unwise and possibly could be challenged in law.

The power to exclude, permanently or otherwise, is vested solely in the head, and this implies discretion in its exercise. The head's decision may be overturned by the governing body or by an appeal panel and, even if the head could be required to impose a mandatory sentence, the power of others to overturn it cannot be taken away.

Quite apart from the legal aspect of the matter, mandatory penalties are of questionable merit in a school, where the approach to behaviour management must allow for the great variety of factors which need to be taken into account in reaching decisions that are in the best interests both of the miscreant and of the rest of the community.

Young people want rules that are clear and fair. They like to know where they stand, and they need to know the likely consequences of misbehaviour. They also need to know that fairness includes compassion, forgiveness and sometimes getting another chance. Mandatory punishments remove the power of judging when these qualities should be exercised from the very person best placed to use them.

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