Archive | November, 2013

Duty of Care for Teachers

17 Nov

As teachers and schools are being held more accountable for the quality of education, they are also being held more accountable for providing a safe environment for students. In Australia, the Occupational Health and Safety Act states the role of the department of Education to provide an environment that is free from risks and hazards.

The moment that students enter the school gates on to school grounds, the school and the department of education has a duty of care to ensure that students will not be injured.

For teachers this means that we have a duty to

* Take reasonable care of the health and safety of themselves and others at the workplace

* cooperate with the employer to comply with OH@S legislation

* report any unsafe conditions which come to their attention

Because teachers work with and around students, OH@S has established a ‘duty of care’ in which teachers are required to take reasonable measures to protect students against risks of injury. For example, if your the teacher on playground duty you have a duty of care for the supervision of those students. If your in a classroom with your students, you have a duty of care to provide a safe environment and take reasonable steps to prevent injury.

As teachers we need to consider safety and what could possibly go wrong or ther risks. To help us make a risk assessment we would need to consider

* The number of students in your care

* The age of the students

* The activity taking place

* The environment where the activity will be taking place

Of course if teachers are working with special needs students, there will be alot more to consider. Teachers may require further assistance from other teachers or special needs staff.

The ‘Duty of Care’ also establishes that teachers must take steps to protect students against injury in circumstances which could be ‘reasonably foreseen’. Now this is where it gets tricky. For teachers we have to think of circumstances where it is possible for a student to be injured. One classic example is when students leave their bags outside the classroom and the handles of the bag are hanging loose from the bag which could be a trip hazard for any student walking or running.

Now as we know accidents do happen. Duty of care is not to ensure that their is no injury but that teachers and the school have taken reasonable steps to prevent injury.

Here is another scenario. You have just started school at 8.10am and you see a student climbing up in a tree. Now you know that they could get hurt. What do you do? A duty of care is established on your part when you see the students in potential harm. So you need to act either by supervising the students yourself or calling for another teacher on playground supervision to watch the students.

Under the Duty of Care, teachers personally cannot be sued or held liable in a court but it is the school or the department of education that takes responsibility under ‘vicarious liability’ in which the school accepts liability on behalf of teachers. However a teacher can be held personally responsible if they are found to have acted negligently if

  • an action which could reasonably have been expected to contribute, directly or indirectly, to causing harm to a pupil;
  • a failure to take action to prevent reasonably foreseeable harm to a pupil.

So what does this mean for teachers in their daily duties? It means that teachers or staff must be on duty half an hour before school starts and thirty minutes after school ends while students are stilll on school grounds.

It means being aware of the school supervision plan which is usually compiled with the consultation with teachers and parents. The plan should be based on a comprehensive assessment of risk, taking into account factors relevant to the school such as: the age, number and nature of students; the finishing time of classes; the layout and terrain of the school grounds, including split sites; proximity of play areas to busy roads; fixed playground equipment; climatic conditions; the activity being undertaken; emergency situations; potential hazards; transport arrangements; as well as the duties and workload of individual teachers.

Teachers have a responsibility to report any incidents and hazards to the principal. When going on excursions or outside the school grounds, teachers should check with principals if they need a risk assessment register for potential hazards to be aware of.




Further information

NSW Department of Education Professional responsibilities of teachers

NSW Teachers Federation


Engaging beyond the classroom

16 Nov

Today’s communities are faced with problems as domestic violence, broken families, drugs and alcohol, bullying and violence. All of these problems can impact student’s learning. But they are problems which require solutions beyond the classroom. This paper will look at how and why schools like Bourke High School need to engage with the local community to meet the needs of their students.

The town of Bourke in North-West NSW could be like any town in outback Australia. The decline of the rural sector and the loss of jobs has resulted in low incomes, high rates of unemployment and poverty. The Bourke Aboriginal community suffers extreme disadvantage due to the isolation of the town and the shortages of adequate health resources and overcrowded housing. The town is plagued by a high crime rate with problems as gambling, drugs and alcohol and violence. In February 2013, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Bourke has the highest rate of crime in NSW and tops the list as more dangerous to live than any other country in the world.

How these social and economic problems impact on students is evident in Bourke High School where high rates of absenteeism are the result of poverty, hunger and a lack of positive role models. These problems are compounded by the lack of a curriculum which students can identify with their Aboriginal heritage and the need for a curriculum which is culturally and socially appropriate (Vivian and Schnierer 2010). But the situation in Bourke is not unique. It has been found that more than 80 per cent of indigenous students achieved minimum national standards with very little improvement in literacy rates since 2008.

In addressing these problems, cooperation between government departments and the local community have been little more than token gestures. Limited cooperation between the various government departments has led to a waste of resources and conflicting decisions as each department receives funding to address the same problem. It is now recognized that one single agency alone cannot resolve these problems but requires the collaboration between schools, parents, the local community and other government and non-government organizations.

In May 2012, the NSW government announced its new strategy ‘connected communities’ where education and training would be linked to other related services as health, welfare, early childhood education and care, and vocational education and training. Schools would act as ‘community hubs’ where health, education, parenting support and anti-gambling measures would all be coordinated from the school grounds. In small communities as Bourke, schools are an important part of the community because they are a large employer and they have the ability to reach deep into the community more than any other institution.

That schools should be the focus of delivering services to the community is elaborated on in the ‘Full Service School’ which Joy Dryfoos defines as a school that has been transformed into a neighborhood hub and that is open all the time to children and their families (Dryfoos, 2005). In the full service community school, a range of support services are provided by community agencies on school grounds. The full service school is more than providing services to the community but is about working together toward improving the outcomes for all school students.

For example, Bourke Public School has developed strong connections with the Bourke Aboriginal Service and Community Health that comes to the school and provides free medical assistance to students requiring help with health issues. Schools as Bourke public school benefit from the support services provided on school grounds as students are absent less from school because of medical reasons. It is one example of a ‘whole student’ approach where schools are not only addressing the education needs of students, but helping to address the health and welfare needs of students.

But as Joy Dryfoos acknowledges that there is no universal approach or ‘one size fits all’ approach that is recommended to schools. In the NSW connected communities strategy, schools provide services to the community that is ‘place driven’ or tailored in their design and delivery to the needs of each school and its local community. For example in 2010 the NSW Ombudsman report into the delivery of services in Bourke identified vulnerable children are disengaging from education in Bourke (NSW Ombudsman report ‘Inquiry into service provision to the Bourke and Brewarrina communities, 2010).

Preventing absenteeism from schools requires resources and funding for which small and remote communities as Bourke does not have. While Bourke depends heavily on government funding, the school attempts to reach out to the community for support. For example, Bourke High School receives support from the Clontarf Foundation which exists to improve the education, employment and life skills of young Aboriginal men. Bourke High School offers free advertising to local businesses as SPAR supermarket in return for sponsorship of the school breakfast and lunch program. Without breakfast, students feel lethargic and can lead to difficulty concentrating and behavior difficulties at school.

The full service school is more than providing services to the community from school grounds but is a partnership between schools, families and the community work together to create better programs and address issues affecting students. Joyce Epstein recognizes that when parents, teachers, students and others view one another as partners in education, a caring community forms around students who are at the center of community partnerships. In a partnership, teachers and administrators create more family like schools and develop a positive image of schools as a caring place (Epstein, 1995).

One partnership that is working to address the problem of absenteeism from school is the involvement of NSW Police working with the Aboriginal Student Liaison Officer and the Home School Liaison Officer that make home visits to students to follow up on student attendance (Bourke High School Newsletter Term 3, Week 4 2013). But addressing a problem as absenteeism from school that leads to crime requires the involvement of the local community in school planning and decisions.

In Bourke High School, high absenteeism rates were a result of lack of indigenous perspectives in the curriculum. Students will not engage in the learning if they do not find it meaningful and relevant to their lives. Teachers need to have teaching strategies that involve real life or authentic learning experiences. For example, teachers can invite the local community as Aboriginal elders into the classroom to talk about a topic from an Aboriginal perspective.

Also absent from Bourke High School is active community involvement in the school. Community involvement in the school allows the community to have a ‘voice’ in school decisions particularly in the school curriculum. In Aboriginal communities where there is already deep mistrust of government agencies resulting from government policies in the past, involving the local community as Aboriginal Elders in school decisions and planning as the curriculum allows both teachers and students to explore Aboriginal history and culture through life stories and provide cultural affirmation and pride for Aboriginal Students (NSW Board of Studies, 2008)

But the most important partners in a child’s education are the parents and carers.  Parents want their children to succeed at school and they want to be involved in all aspects of their child’s development (Epstein). Traditionally parent and carer involvement in the school has been limited to parent and citizen (P&C) meetings or limited to participation in the canteen.  As Joyce Epstein points out, the type of school, family and community partnership programs can determine if parents become involved in their child’s education. If school’s reach out then parents will become partners in their child’s education.

For schools like Bourke High School, collaboration with parents is important for helping teachers with students learning. For example Parents can help their children develop literacy skills by reading to students or help teachers with issues as behavior problems. Unfortunately Bourke High School demonstrates limited parent involvement in the school except for special events. Although the school invites parent involvement through its online newsletter and Aboriginal Elder involvement through a local garden, there is more work to be done by the school to involve the community and address issues as absenteeism.

In conclusion, schools need to take an active role in the community in helping to address its needs. Problems as absenteeism and crime will continue to plague the community unless the school becomes more involved with the community than merely fund raising and special events. If schools are going to engage students, then they need to look beyond the classroom and evaluate school practices as curriculum design and planning. But engaging with the local community should not be a one-way approach but needs to be a partnership between school and the community.

The role of the law in Education

16 Nov

We dont often think of it but the law underpins everything that a teacher does in and outside the classroom. Laws are the basis of policies, procedures and guidelines as the code of conduct.

For example, In NSW the Education Act of 1990 sets out basic principles of teaching. The Education Act sets out that it is compulsory for a child of school age to attend school.

But more importantly, the Education Act of 1990 sets out values that are at the heart of teaching. This includes helping every child to achieve their full potential, providing a high standard of education and encouraging diversity and innovation within schools.

So when we think about how we teach and what we teach, it is not just some fancy or idealistic notions of education, but has the basis in law. Policies of inclusion of all students in the classroom, differentiating instruction for all students, training and collaboration with parents and the community all have their basis in state laws.

Again using the Education Act of 1990 provides that teaching promotes an understanding of Aboriginal history and all culture by all children. If we look at the NSW Year 7-10 syllabus or the new Australian national curriculum for any subject, it is mandatory for teachers to embed Aboriginal perspectives in the curriculum.

While the Education Act of 1990 sets out basic principles of education, laws as the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 and the Disability Discrimination Act set out that students cannot be discriminated against on the grounds of disability, gender, age, transgender, race or ethnic background. Under the Disability Discrimination Act, it is illegal for any person, business or authority to discriminate on the basis of a person’s disability. The legislation ensures that people with a disability have the same opportunities to access employment, education, transport, accomodation and buildings as other members of the community who do not have a disability.

Teachers need to understand what their obligations and responsibilities are before the law. The Teaching Act of 1980 governs the employment, termination and discipline of teachers. In employing and retaining teachers, the act sets out that the protection of children is to be the paramount consideration. For example, under the Child Protection (Working with Children) act it is compulsory for teachers to obtain a working with children clearance check and it is an offence not to hold this clearance. A teacher whom fails a working with children clearance check is barred from working as a teacher and will have their employment terminated.

While all teachers must report if they have been found guilty or accused of a serious crime, teachers are mandatory reporters of children who are at risk of harm. Under the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) act of 1998, teachers have a duty to report if they have reasonable grounds to suspect that a child or young person “is at risk of significant harm if current concerns exist for the safety, welfare or wellbeing of the child or young person because of the presence, to a significant extent, of … basic physical or psychological needs are not being met … physical or sexual abuse or ill-treatment … serious psychological harm.

The law becomes much more serious for teachers when it comes to the protection of children from harm. The Occupational Health and Safety Act 2000 sets out that schools have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for both their staff and for the students. From the OH@S Act comes a ‘Duty of Care’ for teachers to take reasonable measures to protect students against harm.

For teachers we have a duty to protect students from risks that could also be reasonably foreseen. For example if a teacher is heading to a class and sees a student climbing up a tree, the teacher has a duty of care to ensure that the student does not harm themselves. While teachers are safe from legal prosecution because schools take legal responsibility for their teaching staff (vicarious liability), individual teachers can still be held responsibile in a court of law if they are found to have acted negligently.

Knowing and understanding the law not only protects our students, but helps teachers to understand their own roles and responsibilities towards students in and outside the classroom.


NSW Department of Education Professional responsibilities of teachers…/handbook_ch5.doc

Mandatory reporting

The Disability Discrimination Act