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Principal's Blog

2013 TERM 1

Duty of Care


In a past life, I used to ride off on my motorcycle, with tent, cooking gear, sleeping bag and a few clothes, for trips of between ten and forty days. My post-Monaro, pre-Echo days.

A conversation I once had at the Cann River Hotel, on the way to Byron Bay and a month on the road, has stuck with me all this time. It was a busy night at the Cann River Hotel, and I ended up sharing a table with a farmer and his teacher wife from Moe. She had recently been at a school-based professional briefing, after which the principal had concluded that teachers were no longer allowed to leave their classrooms to go for a pee. My new friend, while taking this on board, reflected that her classroom happened to be right next to the toilet, and so she would be away for a maximum of two minutes. Her principal had told her ‘No’ - that duty of care would not allow it.

My response to her, which I do not think she found very useful, was that, well, if I could not trust my class for two minutes while I went to the toilet, then I would consider myself to have failed as an educator. I feel that there is something very wrong with this situation. I have reflected on the expression ‘duty of care’ for years now - and its use in modern society - and think that I have discovered where we have gone wrong. We have defined it as the next two minutes, rather than a lifetime. This has had disastrous consequences for education.

If I am totally responsible for a child for next 30 seconds - and my life will be terminated if anything happens to her - I will probably hold her motionless.

If my duty of care is three hours long, and then it ends, well, I will keep a close eye, and close proximity, to this child. Some type of leash sounds like a good idea.

If my duty lasts all day, well, I’ll keep a close eye, probably not let the child out of sight. No climbing trees, rough sports, outings, or anything that could end up with me being held responsible. Actually, if my duty of care is absolute, holding the child down is still the best option, but just a bit tiring for a whole day.

In schools, duty of care has for a decade or so sat somewhere between 30 seconds and the duration of a class (50-60 minutes). Logically for those held responsible, duty of care defined as total responsibility for a very short duration has led to massive restrictions on action for those in their 'care'.

I have always taken my duty of care, as a man, friend, teacher, father, principal, brother and son very seriously. Sometimes I have felt stifled by society though, when it speaks of duty of care. The difference being - the time frame. I want to educate my children and my students so that they will become valuable and viable members of society. Doing my job properly has a lifetime of consequences. If you take your duty of care as the child's lifetime, rather than just the next class, the difference, in terms of action, interaction and restrictions is significant.

In thinking about myself, my own three pre-schoolers, and the many children I have worked with, I have realised that some of us just have to go too far, to come unstuck, and to learn our lessons that way, by the feedback from, and consequences of, our own actions. Duty of care with a 30-second horizon tortures us, and means that some of life’s necessary lessons are delayed and only later learnt as adults, where the bumps and hurts are harder and take much longer to recover from.

People learn what works and what does not work naturally through trial and error. Defining duty of care as the next 30 seconds makes looking after these children (or adults) a torturous affair for the guardian, and negates the essential learning that comes through getting it wrong.

I would say that we have failed in our long-term duty of care (for me this is all duty of care really is) with these children when we deny them the freedom to try things out and discover for themselves what works. We should draw the line where the errors of the inexperienced can be very costly: we don’t let little ones cross the road. But it is a fact of human growth that bumps occur, and that learning from bumps cannot be avoided, just delayed. When learning is delayed way past the age-appropriate stage, the bumps and consequences are, I believe, more devastating.

Duty of care as it now stands sees us protecting ourselves, not those in our charge, and is a weak, fearful engagement with the world. In protecting ourselves, we fail to truly look after those in our care, in that we frequently fail to prepare them for a lifetime of bumps and challenges. Surely our real responsibility, our true duty of care, is to raise viable, happy and valuable citizens.

Timothy Berryman (Principal)
Fitzroy Community School


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