School’s Duty of Care to Schoolchild: Pook v Rossall School [2018] EWHC 522 (QB)

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A child fell at school. At first instance the judge found that there had been no breach of duty. On appeal the High Court judge agreed that the correct approach had been followed. The judgement contains a helpful threefold decision of the kinds of situations which might be encountered. Martin Spencer J said,

’32. In my judgment, [C’s counsel] is correct to remind the court of the enhanced duty which institutions such as schools and hospitals owe to those in their care who are vulnerable whether because they are patients and ill, or because they are children and young. Furthermore, 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.
33. However, I reject the notion that the duty of a school is to reduce the risk to the lowest level reasonably practicable. I agree with [D’s counsel] that
[i] whilst there are some risks which no reasonable school or teacher would allow a pupil to run (running in corridors between classes for example), and
[ii] other risks which it will almost always be reasonable to allow a pupil to run (for example the risk arising from contact and other sports),
[iii] there will be situations in between which allow for a measure of discretion and judgment on the part of the teachers.
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 (which, in the case of [the teacher], was considerable)… in the context of a witness [the teacher] who was regarded by the Judge as impressive and truthful, the Judge was entitled to have regard to the fact that [the teacher] did not recognise any fault on her part.

34. In considering breach of duty, the learned judge came to the conclusion that there had been no negligence on the part of Mrs Lee in allowing the children to run from the changing rooms to the hockey pitch. In my judgment, not only was there ample material on which the Judge could come to that conclusion but I would go further and say that the Judge was right so to conclude. I agree with [D ’s counsel] that the circumstances to which he alluded…
[Counsel had asked the judge to take into account the following
‘• This was a controlled environment
• the school estate was well managed
• as a child in year 6…, the Claimant would have taken this route many previous times and was familiar with it
• the girls were warned to be aware.’]
are relevant circumstances and ones which [the teacher] would reasonably have taken into account in deciding whether it was reasonable to allow the girls to run to the hockey lesson. 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] 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 very seriously. All this was more than sufficient to entitle the Judge to come to the conclusion there was no breach of duty in this case and that is not a conclusion with which I could possibly interfere. In all the circumstances, it seems to me to have been the right conclusion.

Edited for ease of reading. Matter in parentheses added.

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