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

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