What is the extent of the duty owed by schools to their pupils?

How far does the duty of care owed by schools to pupils extend? We were all familiar with the shouts of ‘WALK! Don’t run’ from teachers as we careered around school corridors. But can failure to echo this stern warning amount to a breach of duty?

The High Court turned its mind to the issue in Pook v Rossall School (2018) EWHC 522 (QB). The claimant was a pupil at the defendant’s school. She was about to undertake her mandatory exercise session for the week. The enjoyable activity of that day was hockey on the Astroturf pitches. The claimant changed into her PE kit and made her way to the hockey pitch. It was her case that she was not only permitted to run, but actively encouraged to do so. In her desperate attempt to reach the pitch quickly the claimant deviated from the path and slipped on muddy patch of grass. This caused her to slip and fall backwards, striking her elbow on the kerb.

The claim was dismissed at first instance on the basis that the defendant had not been negligent in allowing pupils to run. The claimant appealed.

Spencer J held that institutions such as schools and hospitals owe an enhanced duty to those in their care who are vulnerable whether because they are patients and ill, or because they are children and young. He went on to hold that: “the duty goes beyond that of a parent at home with responsibility for the care of his or her family. There are enhanced duties arising from the fact that the ratio of carer to vulnerable person will be greater (a teacher might have responsibility for a class of 30 pupils) and there are duties arising from the different environment of a school or hospital, the equipment that is used and the fact that, in schools particularly, the children are interacting with other children who might act unpredictably and, sometimes, dangerously.”

However, the duty of a school does not extend to reducing the risk to the lowest level reasonably practicable. There are some risks that would be unreasonable to allow a pupil to run, such as running along school corridors, but others it will be reasonable to permit them to assume, such as during sports. There are some circumstances which call for a measure of discretion and judgment on the part of the teachers as to whether it is appropriate to allow a pupil to run a risk. Spencer J held “In those circumstances, the court should be slow to condemn a teacher as negligent and to substitute its own judgment for that of the teacher where the teacher can be expected to have knowledge of the school, the environment, the particular children in her charge and her experience”.

He dismissed the appeal. He considered that a pupil running was not, ordinarily, inherently dangerous if they were careful and, indeed, stopping excitable pupils from running to a sports session was likely to be extremely difficult.

This decision is common sense but is useful in illustrating where the line falls between the enhanced duty of care owed to vulnerable persons and the need to reduce risks to their lowest practicable level. Considered risk assessments are likely to be useful in demonstrating whether this duty has been met.

Should you wish to discuss this matter or anything related, please get in touch with the clerks.