Duty of Care
"Duty of Care" means a duty imposed by law to take care to minimise the risk of harm to others. A teacher's duty of care will arise whenever and wherever there is a teacher-student relationship. "Teaching staff owe a duty to take reasonable care for the safety and welfare of students whilst students are involved in school activities or are present for the purposes of a school activity." (Department of Education WA)
Duty of Care for Students
This underpins and drives most school policies and practices. The duty owed to students is not to ensure that no harm will ever occur, but rather a duty to take reasonable care to avoid harm being suffered. That is, doing the best for the safety and welfare of students.
The duty of care owed to students by school administrators and teachers continues during all breaks, unless other arrangements are made with parents and the duty is thus passed on to the parents (such as students allowed home during lunch break). The duty will last at least until school finishes, when the obligation normally passes back to the parents.
If students are allowed to go home a few minutes early, the obligation does not pass to parents but remains with their teachers until normal finishing time, unless the teacher makes another arrangement with the parents (e.g. following sporting carnivals where parents take students home early).
In a remote community school setting, there will be some unique scenarios such as excursions in comparison to large town centres or city based student excursions. Irrespective of the latitude that may be afforded by parents to their children in a remote community, for example, swimming after school hours, there is no room for latitude towards students for school based activities or excursions.
There must be non-flexibility and no ambiguity by Principals in regard to the Department of Education's Duty of Care policy. An excursion organised by a teaching staff member must follow certain procedures before authorisation by the Principal.
Some considerations by teaching staff to avoid their breach of duty, should include – number of students involved; age; behaviour of students; environment involving the activity; role and responsibility of non-teaching staff and volunteers; supervision; emergency response strategies; and approval of the Principal. All of these considerations assist in establishing a common risk management process.
When non-teaching staff, volunteers and external providers agree to perform tasks that require them personally to care for students (in the absence of a member of the teaching staff), they will also owe a duty to take such measures as are reasonable to protect students from risks of harm. All of the above people should have a Working With Children registration (www.checkwwc.wa.gov.au).
Excursions: Water Based
The teacher-in-charge must conduct a thorough risk assessment of any water based excursion, then seek approval of the Principal. Major considerations will include:
- Location – 'open' or 'closed' water environment.
- Students – assessment of students' swimming and water safety skills.
- Equipment – activities and equipment suitable for students' age and ability.
- Qualifications – teacher-in-charge has the necessary minimum supervisory requirements.
- Staff – are competent swimmers and are aware of emergency signals and understand their role in an emergency.
- Parents – all parents/guardians are fully informed of excursion activities and have signed consent forms.
- Emergency Plan – all staff and students understand what they must do in an emergency situation.
Injured persons may sue the State of Western Australia and it is legally possible for the State to bring a claim for contribution if the employee is deemed negligent. Thus, teaching staff must be well informed that they may breach their duty of care if reasonable care is not exercised in all aspects related to students.
Emergency and Critical Incident Management Plan
Emergency – an event, actual or imminent, which occurs on or offsite; endangers or threatens to endanger life, property or the environment; and requires a significant and co-ordinated response.
Critical Incident – an incident in which there is a high likelihood of traumatic effects, evoking unusual or unexpectedly strong emotional reactions, which have the potential to interfere with the ability of the individual, group or school to function either at the time or later, e.g. suicide, drug-related incidents, weapons, serious medical or health emergency, etc.
The purpose of the plan is the:
- Prevention of;
- Preparedness for;
- Response to and good management of;
- Recovery from; and
- Review of – emergency and critical incidents that impact on the school in order that injury, trauma and distress to students and staff and damage to property is prevented, minimalised or effectively dealt with; and that the school is returned to normal functioning as quickly as possible after the event.
Evacuation Plan Procedures
School emergency drills should be carried out at least once per semester, then reviewed and revised if necessary. An emphasis is for all staff to act responsibly and calmly to ensure the safety of all students. Therefore, they should be aware of specific procedures to follow during an evacuation drill and immediately thereafter.
All staff and students should be familiar with evacuation signals and routes to the designated muster point, where the Principal is responsible for order at the evacuation area.
Critical Incident Plan – Lock Down
A critical incident resulting in a whole school Lock Down could include the following:
- Persons on premises without permission and refusing to leave.
- Persons on premises in an intoxicated/drug-induced state.
- Persons displaying violent or aggressive tendencies towards staff or students.
- Persons carrying a weapon.
- Persons on premises seeking out children.
Established playground procedures and classroom Lock Down procedures should be activated if an incident occurs. These procedures should be revised regularly to ensure familiarisation by all staff and students, particularly in relation to playground evacuation. Principals should have a ready and accessible database of Support Services and Emergency phone numbers and personnel to contact in any of the above situations.
Care of the Individual: Yourself and Your Staff
Principals and teachers locate to remote schools for a variety of reasons – career move, interest in Aboriginal education, challenge – and for some, after a while it may become clear that the things they expected to achieve in their roles may not eventuate.
Teachers are usually inexperienced in working with Aboriginal people and though keen to work hard, have vague or inappropriate notions about teaching Aboriginal students and the complexities of the job and are sometimes overwhelmed by the demands of the job. This then sets the stage for feeling of frustration, or guilt or cynicism, and it may lead to application for a premature transfer, resignation or half-hearted involvement.
As the Principal, in this situation, some basic questions to ask yourself to help sort out your thoughts and the emotions of your staff may include:
- Is the work pace, priorities and timeline you have set for yourself and your teachers in the areas of curriculum, assessment and school management, a reasonable one?
- Are your school based programs and initiatives being hindered due to lack of Aboriginal parent input? Do you need to go back to basic discussions with the Aboriginal community?
- Do you feel a lack of support or respect for the way the Aboriginal community members perceive your role? If the previous Principal had a different way of doing things, the Aboriginal community may have gotten use to the style of that Principal. Time and a gradual acceptance of new ways will usually resolve such a problem.
- Are you taking on problems unnecessarily? Many Aboriginal problems should be referred back to the Aboriginal community.
It is extremely important to take care of yourself, your family and explain to your teaching staff how they may take care to look after their own well-being. (This is explained in greater detail in Module 6, Part 3, Well Being and OHS.)
The Department of Education's Policies website provides all the Department's policies and contains other information including strategic documents and links to relevant legislation.
Some major policy and procedures particularly relevant to the RTS include:
- Motor Vehicle Management – the provision of these vehicles is to help compensate for the isolation factor, and to assist schools in enhancing the educational opportunities of students and to transport teaching staff on official DoE business.
- Human Resources – management; complaints and misconduct; employee housing; etc.
- Student Health Care.
- Injury Management and Workers Compensation.
- Public Sector Standards.
- Poor Performance.
- Behaviour Management.
- School Safety and Security.
Principals in remote Aboriginal schools are often in their first promotional position with little experience in administering a school and providing professional support and leadership to staff members. It is important that they realise that Duty of Care is a mandated component of educational leadership, and encompasses a wide variety of issues from department policies, to staff and student well-being and overall school management.
It is important too, that the Principal takes into serious consideration their own health and well-being. They do not want their early leadership experiences as moving from one crisis to another with teachers and students following behind. The most effective procedure for the Principal to enact is to be aware of, understand and share with staff Department of Education policies, and in particular those directly related to the remote teaching service setting.
For communication, advice and appropriate response, it is crucial to have a quick accessible list of phone numbers, agencies and personnel to contact in an event of an emergency or critical incident.
The best scenario for the Principal and teachers in an Aboriginal school is a cycle of personal and professional discovery, growth and well-being, and leaving nothing to chance and no stone unturned in covering all that is emphasised under the umbrella of Duty of Care.
Several useful and supportive sites for Principals to seek information to assist in their day-to-day educational leadership, include the following websites:
- policies.det.wa.edu.au (search using key words such as, duty of care, excursions)
- wappa.asn.au (add Username & Password). Very useful links include, "From the Field" and "Support Line"
- www.apapdc.edu.au (the Australian Principals Association's Professional Development Council)
- Duty of Care means to put into practice plans and procedures to minimise the risk of harm to others.
- Administrators and teachers owe a duty of care to all students during the duration of a school day and whilst students are involved in or are present for the purpose of a school activity.
- Excursions (general and water based), Emergency and Critical Incident Plans should follow a risk management process with clear procedures to avoid any ambiguity in their performance.
- When non-teaching staff (AIEOs, EAs, etc) agree to supervise students in the absence of a teacher, they also take on a duty of care to the students.
- Principals and teachers owe a duty to look after their own well being, as working in a remote teaching service setting has a number of unique scenarios to contend with, not the least being isolation.
- Principals should avail themselves to key internet sites with links directly related to Aboriginal Education and School Leadership and Management; Department of Education Policies and WAPPA are two essential and supportive sites and organisations in these areas.