Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Malice, mischief and responsibility

A case that briefly appeared in the papers over the summer raises a number of serious issues of how far responsibility can be stretched.

A girl was given the keys to a locked classroom to fetch some folders; while there she poured a poisonous fluid into a teacher's drink container left in the room. The teacher drank the mixture and was very seriously ill. The teacher sued the local authority (as employer) on the grounds that the teacher who had given the girl the key was negligent in allowing her to go into the classroom, and the school and the authority were therefore vicariously responsible. The claim, which included prospective earnings, was for a tooth-rattling 700,000.

The court, following consistent authority, stated that schools did have to allow for the mischievous nature of young people. The implication was that classrooms should not be left unattended and unlocked, and in this case the school did not. Doors were locked and the member of staff who gave the student the key had no reason to believe that she would do something dangerous. In a word, the action was not foreseeable. The court concluded that the teacher, and hence the school and the local authority, was not negligent.

A number of questions arise from this. If the school had no rule about locking classrooms, would it have been deemed to take proper account of the mischievous nature of young people?

There are two possible options to address this. One would be to make it clear to staff in a written policy that they must not rely on classrooms being secure. The second is to have a written policy that classrooms must be locked and stating clearly the basis on which students will get access to them. This in turn may lead to difficulties on wet days.

Whatever particular policy is followed, it needs to have in mind that boys will be boys and, it appears, girls will be girls. It is therefore foreseeable that if it can go wrong, it will and there should be reasonable routines and policies in place to protect people and property.

However, the case also is encouraging in that it allows a teacher to exercise reasonable judgement and to be protected from a claim even if discretion leads to disaster.

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