3rd July 1998 at 01:00
Your administrative worries answered by Archimedes.

* Safe search

Q A parent is threatening to sue the school because we searched her son's bag, even though we obtained his permission. How should we respond?

A You are in no risk of a court action. The school, in the exercise of its duty of care of all pupils, is entitled to investigate any matter which affects the discipline of the school. This includes the searching of pupils' property, whether in bags, lockers or pockets. Acting in loco parentis, the school is entitled to act in the way a responsible parent would act and it seems eminently reasonable to suppose that a parent would feel able to search a child's possessions if wrong-doing were suspected.

Of course, it is good practice to ask a pupil to agree to the search and to be present when it takes place. It is also good practice to have a witness present, to avoid any doubts being raised subsequently. If a pupil resolutely refused to agree to a search, I should be inclined to send for the parents so that they could be present too. You should certainly avoid a body search: a voluntary emptying of pockets is the best approach.

In your case, it appears that you have acted with total propriety.

* Homework hassle

Q A pupil has refused to do any homework, in spite of it being school policy and part of the agreement we have with parents. The parent is backing the pupil. What should be our response?

A As yet, the Government has not made homework a legal requirement, nor has it made home-school agreements enforceable. You do not, therefore, have any power to compel compliance on pupil or parent.

No doubt, you have already explained what the effect of their attitude will be, not only on the pupil's likely attainment, but also on his or her being seen to be singled out from all other pupils. You really do not have much in the way of sanctions available to you, although this pupil might not be selected for enjoyable extra-curricular visits and the like. Co-operation is, after all, a two-way affair.

You would do well to advise all those who teach this pupil not to waste their time on trying to extract homework and also to avoid victimising him or her as a consequence.

* Damage dilemma

Q Can teachers who take school equipment home be charged for losses, repairs and breakages?

A I suspect that many schools are rather lax about teachers' use of school equipment off the premises, believing that the results in terms of work and goodwill are a fair return for a liberal policy.

They ought, however, to have a clear policy statement in order to retain responsible control of school property. This should include guidelines on circumstances when the removal of school property from the premises may be authorised and by whom. Questions of loss and damage should be included to ensure that risks are covered by insurance. Above all, there should be a clear rule that any equipment so removed is signed out and back again, so that a proper check can be maintained.

Incidentally, if school equipment, for example computers, is routinely available at home for the private use of individuals, the Inland Revenue might start taking an interest in it as a taxable benefit in kind.

* Tax relief

Q Some teachers at this school have been told by the Inland Revenue that using the school's laptop computers at home may be a taxable benefit. Is this true?

A It may be, although the situation may not be as threatening as it sounds. The Taxes Act 1988 said that a taxable "benefit in kind" exists where an asset is placed at the disposal of an employee or his family wholly or partly for their own purposes. The cost of that benefit for tax purposes is deemed to be 20 per cent of its market value at the time when it was first made available.

If the laptops were not brand new when first made available, then, given the rapid depreciation of computer equipment, the actual tax liability may be negligible, should the tax inspector latch onto it.

If the laptop is provided primarily for use at school and is only taken home occasionally for use on school work, then no taxable benefit could be established. Similarly, if the equipment is borrowed from the school only occasionally, it is unlikely that the benefit would exist.

One can always try to turn the situation back on the tax office: if it could be demonstrated that the school required the work to be done at home, the cost of providing the accommodation where this work took place could be an expense to be set against tax. I have to say, however, that experience indicates that the Inland Revenue requires very hard evidence that it is an absolute direction of the employer that the work must be done at home, before they will swallow that one.

* Pooled resources

Q Pupils who choose the swimming option in games are required to pay for transport and admission to the pool. A parent is challenging our right to make this charge. Is he right?

A Probably not. The law relating to charging is set out in the Education Act 1996. Section 451 of the Act states: "Where the education is provided for the pupil during school hours, no charge shall be made in respect of it." Section 454 deals specifically with transport in relation to Section 451 and prohibits charging for it.

However, assuming that the normal curriculum provision for games is provided free for all pupils on the school premises, the swimming option may be regarded as an optional extra. In that case a charge may be made, provided that it does not exceed the actual cost of the provision itself. It must also be covered by the charges and remissions policies of the governing body and, if relevant, the local authority.

You might wish to avoid any hassle by describing the payment for swimming not as a charge but as a voluntary contribution, on which, provided exemptions are made for those for whom it would be a hardship, the law is silent. Parents would understand that, unless enough contributions at the recommended level were made, the activity would have to be cancelled.

* Smoke signals

Q Smoking has been completely banned in the school. The headteacher has now told me that I must not smoke outside the gate on the public highway. Can she do this?

A You are subject to the reasonable requirements of your employer in respect of your employment. You may be required, for instance, to observe certain standards of dress and personal appearance and to abide by reasonable rules of conduct, both in and out of school hours. Should your conduct bring the school into disrepute, for example, your employer might reasonably take note of it.

The test in this, as in so many matters, is one of reasonableness. Your recourse, if you consider that any direction given to you by the head is unreasonable, is the grievance procedure. An alternative route is to ask your union, if you belong to one, to take up the matter on your behalf.

I presume that your head is seeking to persuade pupils of the dangers of smoking and to discourage them from doing so outside the school as well as inside. She may take the view that the sight of teachers rushing outside the gate to light up is neither dignified nor helpful and she might attract some sympathy for that position. This is really the sort of issue which ought to be settled by sensible discussions between professional people, rather than by confrontations about rights and duties.

* Archimedes regrets he cannot enter into correspondence with readers. Questions should be sent to Helpline, 'The TES', 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY.

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