“No running in the corridor!” is an admonishment we all remember from our school days. It still echoes down school corridors today and with good reason: schools have a duty of care towards their pupils and this includes reminding them of any dangers. However, the issues are not always clear cut and there are can be fears that the school will always be found to be in the wrong. This is not so.
In the recent case of Pook v Rossall, a pupil ran from the changing rooms to the hockey field for a PE lesson. Deviating from the footpath across a muddy patch of grass the pupil fell and sustained a serious injury to her elbow. The school was accused of failing to protect the pupil because no teachers were in sight and she had been encouraged to run. The High Court did not find the school had been negligent in allowing the pupil to run.
The Court found that schools have an enhanced duty to pupils in their care arising from the fact that the ratio of teacher to pupils will be greater and that the school environment is different, including the greater and more unpredictable (and potentially dangerous) interactions with other children. However, balanced against this enhanced duty a school does not have to reduce the risk to the lowest level reasonably practicable. This case falls between where it is never reasonable to allow a pupil to run (e.g. in the corridor) and nearly always reasonable to (e.g. while playing sport). In these less clear circumstances the court should be slow to judge teachers as negligent where they can be expected to know the school, the environment, the particular children in their charge and their experience (which in this case was considerable).
The Court found there had been no negligence on part of the teacher in allowing the pupils to run from the changing rooms to the hockey pitch. The judge summarised the position as follows:
“I would be surprised if it is not the case that in schools up and down the country, children are allowed to run to sports lessons unless, perhaps, the route takes them over busy roads or through an environment which is inherently dangerous. However, generally, it is not inherently dangerous for children to run as long as they are careful and to stop them from doing so when on their way to a sports session would be extremely difficult. [The teacher in this case] demonstrated herself to be a caring and thoughtful teacher who had been responsible for an impressive risk assessment which showed that she was well aware of her duty of care towards the children in her care and took that duty seriously.”
This is a helpful judgment that clarifies that schools have an enhanced duty of care towards pupils and that whilst risk assessments are necessary they are not required to reduce risk to the lowest possible level. Each teacher must use their own judgment and knowledge of the specific factors at hand.