Supply teachers: Your legal duties

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in December 2017.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here

When you think of a teacher’s legal obligations, you tend to think in terms of child protection and safeguarding. So, although a supply teacher’s legal duties extend beyond this realm, it is a good place to start.

What is child protection?

Ofsted adopts the definition of child protection that’s used in the Children Act 2004 and in the Department for Education’s (DfE) guidance document, Working together to safeguard children, which focuses on safeguarding and promoting children’s and learners’ welfare.

For the purposes of this article and to achieve consistency and clarity, I will adopt the same definition, which can be summarised as:

  • Protecting children and learners from maltreatment.
  • Preventing impairment of children’s and learners’ health or development.
  • Ensuring that children and learners are growing up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care.
  • Undertaking that role so as to enable those children and learners to have optimum life chances and to enter adulthood successfully.

The DfE guidance Safeguarding children and safer recruitment in education, meanwhile, makes it clear that schools must provide a safe environment and take action to identify and protect any children or young people who are at risk of significant harm.

As far as an individual supply teacher is concerned, there are a number of statutory provisions which state they must work with their school in order to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.

In particular, supply teachers:

  • Should be familiar with the procedures in the school, academy or college for dealing with suspected child abuse. Concern or suspicions should be reported.
  • Should receive appropriate training on child protection issues.

In practical terms, it is important that a supply teacher knows the designated child protection lead. If ever a child discloses a child protection matter, the supply teacher’s first action must be to inform the child protection lead.

Each school will also have its own safeguarding policy. Supply teachers should locate and read this policy in order to understand precisely what is expected of them.

Other legal duties

In addition to the duties associated with child protection and safeguarding, supply teachers have a number of legal duties, such as their duty of care towards pupils.

Supply teachers – like all the staff working in a school – are required to do all that is reasonable in order to protect the health, safety and welfare of pupils.

A supply teacher’s legal responsibilities derive from three sources:

  1. The common law duty of care.
  2. The statutory duty of care.
  3. The duty arising from the contract of employment (which might be twofold: both the contract they have with their supply agency and the contract they sign with the school at which they are working).

The common law duty of care

Supply teachers have a duty of care to pupils which derives from the common law. The common law is law developed through the decisions of the courts as opposed to law which has been determined by Parliament and set down in statute.

A supply teacher’s duty of care will depend upon what is reasonable and what can be expected of a competent professional acting within the constraints of the circumstances

As long as supply teachers apply their professional judgement, training and experience to situations in a reasonable manner, seeking to promote the best interests of the pupils in their care, their obligations will have been met.

The statutory duty of care

Supply teachers are also responsible under the Children Act 1989 which places statutory duties upon all those who care for children.

When issues arise concerning safeguarding or promoting the welfare of children, supply teachers should take into account the ascertainable needs and wishes of the children as individuals, considered in the light of their ages, understanding and any risk of harm.

The contractual duty of care

A duty of care also arises from a supply teacher’s contract of employment, the terms of which will depend on the type of school in which the supply teacher works and on the nature of their supply placement and their agency’s terms and conditions.

Many supply teachers are employed according to the School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document (STPCD). This document takes effect by statutory order and is revised annually, the new provisions becoming effective in September of each year.

Among the list of contractual duties, supply teachers might be required to:

  • Plan and teach lessons to the classes they are assigned to teach within the context of the school’s plans, curriculum and schemes of work.
  • Assess, monitor, record and report on the learning needs, progress and achievements of assigned pupils.
  • Promote the safety and wellbeing of pupils and maintain good order and discipline among pupils.

Health and safety

In addition to these legal duties, under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, supply teachers are also obliged to take reasonable care for the health and safety of the pupils in their care.

In practice, this means that supply teachers should comply with any school and/or local authority guidance on health and safety issues and make sure that they are familiar with any such guidance.

Out-of-school activities

It is not uncommon for a supply teacher to be required to supervise out-of-school events such as school trips. It is important, therefore, to understand the legal liabilities that accompany such trips.

A supply teacher’s legal liability for an injury which is sustained by a pupil on a school journey or excursion depends on whether or not the injury to the pupil is a direct result of some negligence or breach of the duty of care on the part of that teacher. There is no legal liability for any injury sustained by pupils unless there is proven negligence.

The standard of care required of supply teachers is that which, from an objective point of view, can reasonably be expected from teachers generally applying skill and awareness of children’s problems, needs and susceptibilities.

In practice, reasonable steps must be taken to avoid exposing pupils to dangers which are foreseeable and beyond those with which the particular pupils can reasonably be expected to cope.

This does not imply constant 24-hour direct supervision. The need for direct supervision has to be judged by reference to the risks involved in the activity being undertaken.

Supply teachers should not participate in journeys or visits which they believe are not being adequately prepared and organised. Any concerns should be raised with the headteacher or trip organiser and, if the response is unsatisfactory or concerns remain, with the supply agency and, if relevant, the supply teacher’s professional association.

Physical contact with pupils

Another potentially thorny issue for supply teachers is whether or not to make physical contact with pupils.

Contrary to popular opinion, it is not illegal to touch a pupil. There are occasions when physical contact, other than reasonable force, with a pupil is proper and necessary.

However, all teachers – but particularly supply teachers who are more likely to encounter behavioural issues and who cannot rely on long-standing relationships with pupils and senior staff and the trust this brings – should always seek to avoid physical contact with pupils.

Reasonable force to restrain

If it is unavoidable, the law states that teachers are generally permitted the use of reasonable force to prevent pupils from hurting themselves or others, from damaging property, or from causing disorder.

The DfE guidance on the use of reasonable restraint provides that teachers can use reasonable force:

  • To remove disruptive pupils from the classroom where they have refused to follow an instruction to do so.
  • To prevent a pupil behaving in a way that disrupts a school event or a school trip or visit.
  • To prevent a pupil leaving the classroom where allowing the pupil to leave would risk their safety or lead to behaviour that disrupts the behaviour of others.
  • To prevent a pupil from attacking a member of staff or another pupil, or to stop a fight in the playground.

It should be noted that the use of any degree of force is unlawful if the particular circumstances do not warrant it. The degree of force should be in proportion to the circumstances and the seriousness of the behaviour or consequences it is intended to prevent. The level and duration of the force used should be the minimum necessary to achieve the desired result, such as to restore safety.

It is always unlawful to use force as a form of punishment or discipline.

Incidents of restraint should always be logged in a record book provided for this purpose and monitored by a senior staff member. The record should be contemporaneous and detailed, as this will help in the event of any later investigation or complaint.

Supply teachers should ensure they familiarise themselves – and swiftly at the start of a new placement – with their school’s behaviour policy. Although there is no legal requirement to have a specific policy on the use of force, DfE guidance recommends that, as a matter of good practice, schools should set out in their behaviour policy the circumstances in which force might be used.


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