Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Limits to keeping students safe

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How much responsibility can schools take for students' safety? A recent case (Webster v Ridgeway Foundation School) suggests that the courts, at least, do understand the difficulties schools face in real life.

The case, which involved a rural school, as ever turned on its facts. The school had, in a relatively short time, received an intake of pupils of Asian heritage.

There had been some ugly events outside and inside the school, some white pupils felt that the staff were not prepared to tackle the aggressive behaviour of some of the Asian boys. The staff did not perceive the situation in the same way.

The event in question was a quarrel between two boys which led to one challenging the other to a fight. They agreed to meet after school on the tennis courts, which were out of sight of staff but close to a road. When one of the boys, who was white, turned up as agreed he was attacked by a car-borne gang of Asian youths - several of whom had no connection to the school - and suffered a fracture to his skull.

The police secured criminal convictions against the attackers but the family of the victim sued for post-traumatic stress.

If the school was negligent, then it was clearly liable. The site was open and roads ran close to the school. The bad feeling was known. Staff were aware that older Asian youths sometimes turned up to support their compatriots from the school. The initial quarrel had come to the attention of staff. Was it reasonable to expect more care?

The judge found for the school on all points. As well as local opposition, finance precluded securing the site. Other schools had higher priority and some pupils walked home across the school field. Not fencing was not negligent.

Should they have patrolled the tennis court? The judge found it was not a normal exit and if the fight had not been arranged there, it would have happened out of sight elsewhere on the school field where, he was told, other fights had taken place without staff knowledge.

Should the staff have been more alert? The initial incident seemed closed but even so the head and a senior staff member had gone to the bus lay-by as a precaution.

And intruders? The judge took the view that although there had been incidents in the neighbourhood, the school could not have expected that this would spill on to school grounds. Still less could they have expected the violent assault, which even the other assailants had not anticipated.

What happened was not foreseeable: there could therefore be no negligence.

Some may feel that the school got off lightly and, of course, an appeal may lead to a different result. In some parts of the country what happened would be entirely foreseeable. If you have already had intruders attacking pupils on site, do not expect sympathy from a court if you have not secured it.

Similarly, the school would be negligent if it had not subsequently fenced off the school, regardless of local protests, because it now knew that something like this could happen.

However, when doing a risk assessment, you are not required to guard against dangers that are purely fanciful, and this case shows what a judge may regard as going over that boundary.

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