Taking the `careful father' approach on school trips is no longer necessary. Follow your school's advice, use your common sense and you'll be fine, says Jon Berry
What does the law say about out-of-school activities?
I would like to lay a small bet that the response to this question from most teachers would be to repeat the Latin phrase that bedevils the profession that we are acting in loco parentis. Stemming from a court judgment of 1893, the idea that you should act like a "careful father" which is what that judgment advised has been superseded.
The law now acknowledges that looking after 30 teenagers or toddlers is not the same as looking after your own children and that one of the things teachers should be doing is fostering a spirit of "sturdy independence" in children. In essence, this means that the law takes into account the fact that accidents and mishaps occur and that in many cases there is nothing anyone could have done to prevent them.
So what do I have to do to protect myself?
The answer here lies, as it always does, in preparation. Most schools now have a well-practised approach to risk-assessment and this shouldn't be too onerous a task. For you as a group leader or as teacher involved in the activity, the most important things to do are to read and adhere to the following:
Your school's policy on out-of-school activities.
Any advice from your local authority (it's likely that the school's advice will mirror this).
Anything stemming from your subject association (for example, The Association for Science Education or The Association for Physical Education).
Advice from the websites of the teacher unions and Teachernet.
It cannot be emphasised too strongly that by demonstrating that you have acted upon the advice above, you will have protected yourself from any claim of negligence in the event of an accident and that holds true whether you are trekking across the Andes or walking round your park.
What's the worst that can happen if things go wrong?
Complying with the proper, professional advice outlined above will always protect you. All the same, even though it is your employer who is liable in the final analysis, there is no law in existence that will protect any teacher who has acted foolishly or imprudently in any given situation.
Jon Berry is programme director for the PGCE secondary course at the University of Hertfordshire and author of Teachers' legal rights and responsibilities: a guide for trainee teachers and those new to the profession (University of Hertfordshire Press)