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Understanding Duty of Care in Schools

In this blog, Rachael Bishop, safeguarding consultant and Managing Director of RLB Safeguarding, explains the concept of duty of care, explores the legal and ethical obligations of schools and education settings in this context, and provides guidance on fulfilling them.

What is duty of care in schools? 

Duty of care refers to the level of responsibility an organisation or person/group has to ensure both the safety, wellbeing, and development of the people they care for within their organisation. From an educational perspective, this means students and colleagues who are under the supervision or schools or education settings. Educators must create a nurturing and safe environment where students can thrive socially, emotionally, and academically. 

Schools must therefore ensure that the following obligations are met:

  • physical safety: schools must provide physically safe environments for students. This will include facilities and equipment, and the minimisation of risks and hazards.
  • education and development: schools are responsible for promoting the spiritual, moral, social, emotional, cultural, and personal development of students. 
  • supervision and care: school staff must supervise students effectively in both a physical and emotional sense. This involves being vigilant around behaviours, and local, contextual, and wider safeguarding issues. 
  • emotional and mental wellbeing: creating a supportive and inclusive learning environment, being attentive to signs of distress, abuse, discrimination, or bullying, and providing appropriate support or specialist referrals when needed. 

The scope of duty of care also extends to responsibilities towards staff, visitors, and volunteers. 

What are your legal responsibilities and obligations? 

There are specific legal responsibilities for schools and educational institutions regarding a duty of care, particularly for safeguarding. Schools must adhere to Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) guidance. KCSIE states, “Safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children is everyone’s responsibility. Everyone who comes into contact with children and their families has a role to play. In order to fulfil this responsibility effectively, all practitioners should make sure their approach is child centred. This means that they should consider, at all times, what is in the best interests of the child.” 

Some relevant legislation, regulations, and case law that inform duty of care practices in schools can include:

  • Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and regulations
  • Fire Safety Act 2021
  • Fire Safety in new and existing school buildings
  • The Prevent duty 2023
  • SEND code of practice
  • Education Acts
  • The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 with regard to safer recruitment
  • The Equality Act 2010
  • The Children’s Act 2004
  • The Care Act 2014 

Some examples of legal cases relating to duty of care in educational settings can include incredibly tragic events where students and staff have been harmed, killed, or abducted, or have been able to run away from school premises. We have seen horrific school shootings, and also instances where school staff have abused their position of trust and abused, and in some circumstances murdered, students. 

Schools have also been threatened with legal action for issues regarding access to prayer facilities, bullying incidents, the use of gender toolkits, being accused of breaking the law for not adhering to trans guidance, the use of physical force, and staffing abuse issues. 

From a moral standpoint, it is essential that schools acknowledge both their legal and ethical responsibilities to build trust and confidence, promote their values, and abide by societal and community expectations. 

Understanding the duty of care for students 

By implementing laws and guidance, school leaders and educators can help ensure that students are in a safe physical environment. For example, they should ensure that risk assessments are up to date, keep first aid kits in good working condition, have the correct evacuation, invacuation, and fire drill procedures in place, and make sure students are aware of what to do in any circumstances which pose physical risks. 

In terms of safeguarding, child and adult protection, bullying prevention, and mental health support, it is also a school’s duty of care to embed knowledge and awareness of how to minimise risk and report a concern to a trusted adult. This will also include having fully trained staff that can support with recognising and responding to concerns, and of course, referring to or applying supportive interventions. The importance of early help assessment and prevention is always something that staff should hold in mind. 

Addressing challenges and mitigating risks 

Education and awareness are also important factors in adhering to duty of care. Providing education for staff, students, and parents on risk awareness, prevention and response will empower people to report unsafe situations. 

Risk assessment and management strategies can also help fulfil duty of care towards students, especially when there are challenges and barriers to effectiveness. Here are some ways that schools can approach this:

  •  Identify and assess risks via comprehensive risk assessments in respect of internal and external factors, and then implement the appropriate control measures. Risk assessments must be dynamic and easily adapted, as things can change so fast.
  • Understand contextual safeguarding risks from the perspective of students, staff and visitors. These may include specific areas of the school, emotional, and social risks, or local safeguarding issues spilling into school from the community.
  • Supervise and monitor students and consider what activities will require specific protocols or staffing. It is essential to have policies and procedures in place for staff, volunteers, visitors, and students to adhere to. 
  • Always be prepared for emergencies by developing business continuity plans, and emergency response plans for various scenarios, such as natural disasters, medical emergencies, and security incidents. When we also educate people about local and national risks, it empowers them to be prepared in specific situations, and to know who or how to ask for help when required. Emergency protocols must be shared with all stakeholders, so that they are aware of what to do. 

Understanding duty of care for staff, visitors, and volunteers 

Staff members must receive and understand: 

  • appropriate training such as health and safety guidance on staff working conditions, safeguarding, harassment, discrimination, and how to access support regarding wellbeing and mental health. This should be covered at induction and regularly updated throughout the year. 
  • policies and procedures regarding behaviour, codes of conduct, allegations, and referring safeguarding and wellbeing concerns, so that they are aware of their roles and responsibilities at all times. 
  • support as their role can be extremely challenging, and leaders and managers must recognise current challenges and stress points when thinking about the wellbeing and physical and emotional safety of their staff. 

The Education Staff Wellbeing Charter also plays a big part in staff wellbeing and can be accessed here:

Visitors must receive and understand:

  • visitor procedures and guidelines for signing in, raising safeguarding or health and safety concerns, on how they will be escorted whilst on the premises, and where there may be some restrictions on specific areas.
  • emergency procedures such as emergencies, fire, or lockdown. 

Volunteers must receive and understand: 

  • how school policies and procedures work. 
  • how to access adequate supervision and support for their roles, and clear expectations around behaviours and codes of conduct. 

Implementing duty of care in schools 

There are a number of practical strategies and guidelines for implementing duty of care principles in school policies and procedures. These may include regularly updating policies in line with government guidance and legislative changes, communicating them to all stakeholders, regular consultation, understanding current themes, trends, and risks, and using plans and risk assessments to document and monitor both physical and emotional risks. Stress testing policies and initiatives are also a great way to test the effectiveness of protocols to see if they are fit for purpose. 

The roles of leadership, staff training, and communication are fundamental in fostering a culture of duty of care within schools. It is essential to regularly assess, monitor and audit the above at regular intervals throughout the academic year to ensure effectiveness and impact. 

Summary and key takeaways 

Schools should undertake proactive measures to ensure student safety and wellbeing, not only as a matter of compliance with laws and regulations, but also as a fundamental aspect of their mission and ethical responsibility. 

School educators and leaders must always continue to recognise cultural capital - the essential knowledge that children need to prepare them for future success. Adhering to schools’ duty of care will help give students the best possible start to their early education. 

Regularly assess if you are doing all you can with regard to duty of care, whilst consulting with stakeholders to evidence this and to understand what impact and continuous improvements can be made. 

The National College offers comprehensive resources to help schools ensure compliance with statutory safeguarding guidance and fulfil their duty of care. 

If you’re concerned about keeping up to date with the latest education policy, practice and research, consider a membership with The National College. Not only does it provide access to thousands of professional development resources for all staff, but also enables leaders to create training programmes precisely tailored to individual and collective needs, to help ensure compliance and drive up standards.