Legal issues

10th October 2003 at 01:00
The jailing of a geography teacher for negligence after a 10-year-old boy drowned in the Lake District is bound to send shock waves through schools.

It is thought to be the first prison sentence for a teacher for negligence.

The judge said that the teacher's behaviour warranted the 12- month sentence.

Tragic as the incident was, it should be put into perspective. There are an estimated seven to 10 million days of pupil visits each year, with on average three to five deaths per year. Though each of these is a tragedy, even sadder are the figures for other accidental deaths of under 18s - an average each year of 200 in their homes and 400 on our roads. There are far more accidents inside schools than engaging in external activities. School visits are generally well-organised and statistically safe places for any child to be.

But higher and higher standards are expected from schools, reflected in the amount of guidance issued by the Government over the past five years.

During 2002-3 important supplements were added to the main 1998 guidance, but these have not been sent automatically to schools. They have to be ordered from the department or downloaded from the internet.

Most serious accidents on school trips happen in water, and the department earlier this year issued guidance on taking groups near water margins. It does not include advice on swimming and watersports, which are specialised activities, but it offers "top tips" on what to do before, during and after a visit to water.

Teachers' legal responsibility on all school visits is to do what is "reasonably practicable" to avoid risks. Schools could satisfy this by considering carefully which visits they should be organising themselves, and which would be best run by reputable external providers, who have the time as well as the expertise to guarantee that all the Government's guidance has been followed.

Schools will still retain the overall duty of care for the welfare of their pupils, but are spared the detailed risk assessment of the activities delegated to the operator. Their task is to ensure that the operator has carried out the relevant risk assessments and has safety management systems in place with qualified people to run them. To assist schools in this LEAs must now have trained outdoor education advisers. Every school should also have an education visits co-ordinator among the senior staff, and all school group leaders in the future should be appropriately trained.

Accidents will still happen, but the recommendations now in place should ensure that they could not have been reasonably foreseen and avoided.

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