Nearly all teachers in all schools are required at some time to engage in yard or playground duty as a routine component of their day to day job as a teacher. Some teachers despise having to do this duty whilst others tend to enjoy it.
Love it or loathe it, if it is a school requirement for teachers to attend and complete yard duties, then the level of duty of care that is exhibited by each teacher must be what the courts would define as ‘reasonable care'. However, it is the culture of the school and the fairness of rosters that can often define how teachers approach their yard duties and how well they meet their duty of care obligations.
In some schools, some teachers will wander out of the staffroom 5 or so minutes late, coffee cup in hand and they will congregate in two’s or three’s chatting, whilst making the odd obligatory or cursory glance at the children playing around them. This may occasionally be peppered with a loud call to admonish a child for inappropriate behaviour. Does your school encourage its staff to be vigilant and approachable whilst on duty? Are the staff aware that failure to attend duty on time and failure to be vigilant whilst on their rostered duty is a very real breach of their personal duty of care?
Others will move amongst the children, engaging them in thoughtful and appropriate ‘out of classroom’ discussions such as, ‘How is your brother, I heard he has not been well?’ or ‘What did you and your parents do over the weekend?’, whilst gently reminding children about suitable play or behaviour. These teachers generally enjoy their yard duty rosters because they take the time to develop their relationships with their students in an environment that is outside of the classroom. They also tend to make themselves known by their vigilance and they can reduce the risk of poor behaviour resulting in injuries.
A breach of duty of care is, as has been discussed before, usually only determined by a court when there has been a foreseeable risk, an alleged breach in the level of care and a child has sustained an injury. However, teachers, whether it be in a class room, on the oval, on an excursion or whilst on yard duty, should be clearly aware of their duty of care responsibilities and the extent to which they are expected to monitor the students in their care.
There are several issues that schools face regarding yard duty and teacher rosters.
Firstly, and from an industrial perspective, under the federal Educational Services (Teachers) Award 2010 (the Modern Award), under Section 20 – Breaks, it states:
20.1 An employee will be entitled to an unpaid meal break of 30 consecutive minutes no later than five hours after commencing work.
This means that if a teacher has 'face to face' teaching commitments for a full day, they should probably not be given yard duty at lunch time unless they can be guaranteed their own lunch break of at least 30 minutes before returning to teaching after lunch. Failure to do so is a breach of the award, even if the teacher does not appear to object.
Secondly, there is an issue of fairness for both the number of, duration of and position of duties for teachers. An excellent example of the expectations for the allocation of yard duties can be found in the WA Department of Education document ‘Teachers Hours of Duty’.
‘Yard duty rosters should be developed in a manner that provides equitable distribution of yard duty among teachers, giving consideration to the dynamics of the school and appropriate risk management strategies. The Department’s position is that yard duty is managed at a local school level and should look to be fair, equitable and transparent. That is, that the teachers clearly understand the requirements and that it is evenly and fairly distributed accordingly.’
Similar guides can be found in most states and territories including the Northern Territory, the ACT and Queensland. Although these are government school requirements, non-government schools would find it extremely difficult to mount an argument that they can allocate and insist on teachers doing duties in a manner that is perceived as being biased, unfair or in breach of the Award or their Enterprise Agreement. Teachers will very quickly compare and contrast their scheduled yard duties and they are also generally quick to voice their displeasure if they believe that they have been unfairly rostered or if they have been given duties greater than the norm. It is usually the Deputy Principal who would develop the semester or annual duty roster. I have not yet met one who has told me that it is a pleasure to develop the roster and that all staff are always very happy with their allocations!
Some schools allow teachers to allocate their own duties, in a very democratic and open manner at the commencement of the year, which may satisfy the fairness criteria, however this does not shift the responsibility for the roster from the school to the teacher. It needs to be understood that any supervision roster, no matter how or by whom it is created, remains the ultimate responsibility of the school - the school must ensure that there is adequate supervision to satisfy the school's duty of care.
Next, there is an issue of having the teacher with the right skills set in the right place for their skills to be utilised effectively, whilst on playground duty. For example, in a K-12 school, placing a secondary trained teacher on duty in a Kindergarten playground, could be a disaster. Similarly, asking an inexperienced teacher to supervise boisterous secondary students on the school oval could also spell disaster. These teachers, placed in a very different age group from their usual student groups or if they are new to teaching, often do not know how the children generally behave and they will probably not have the skills to deal with situations that may arise just from general play, let alone when there are issues such as bullying or inappropriate rough play.
Teachers who are randomly placed on duty in areas that are outside of their experience or capabilities can, and often do, pose a high risk regarding a breach of duty of care by the school. This can also be said about the deployment of ‘Relief Teachers’ onto yard duty, as was noted in this 2016 School Governance article regarding Relief Teacher Induction.
Schools need to have many other considerations in mind for the development of their semester or annual duty roster such as:
- The playground environment: how many areas require supervision, is there play equipment such as slides and swings, is the equipment in good order, is it a nature play environment, is it adequately fenced, is it close to a road, water hazard or a construction area, is it suitable for the activities of the children? Schools can reduce the number of available areas during breaks by making some areas ‘out of bounds’ for some or all children. This is particularly important if there is a higher than acceptable risk of injury in a specific area of the school campus – for example in the maintenance areas.
- The weather and external environmental conditions: is it swelteringly hot, are there expected thunderstorms, is there adequate shade and protection, are there places where children can ‘hide from view’? Does the school require a ‘season specific’ duty roster? Schools need to know that there can be specific ‘problem’ areas that, although not high risk, require a greater level of supervision or should be ‘out of bounds’.
- Medical training: do the staff on duty have the required training if a student is at risk of a medical incident such as an anaphylaxis incident? The DET Victoria Anaphylaxis Guidelines provide guidance to schools on various issues regarding anaphylaxis management including adequately training staff and having a copy of each student’s Individual Anaphylaxis Management Plan in locations around the school, including in yard duty bags.
- Does the school have a bullying problem? If so, where in the playground do the bullies tend to operate, are there places where non-school people can get access onto the grounds and to the children, are there areas (such as locker areas) where poor behaviour can be easily hidden from supervising staff?
- Are there activities in which students engage that require a greater level of duty of care- rough and tumble contact games on the oval such as ‘British bulldog’, using a ‘flying fox’ or similar type of play equipment, climbing trees or other nature play activities?
- Is it important in your school culture to not have too great a teacher presence during the breaks so as to allow children to develop a sense of self responsibility and independence? From a practical perspective, schools simply cannot have all teachers on duty on all days and at all times.
- Would younger children require more supervision than perhaps a group of Year 12 seniors, would boisterous boys require a greater amount of supervision than perhaps a group of girls of the same age? Are there gender specific needs for supervision in certain parts of your school yard- for example change-room areas?
- The ability of the children – children with special needs or with medical issues generally require a much higher level of supervision and duty of care than children without disabilities- for example do you have children who are ‘runners’ who take the opportunity to leave the school grounds, do you have staff trained in the use of Epi-pens where children at risk of anaphylaxis tend to play?
- The numbers of children who frequent the area (Note that the NQF dictates specific staff/student ratios and these ratios apply at all times during the school day). Clearly, areas with greater student numbers during the breaks, may require a greater number of duty staff.
- The length of time for the various breaks- is there a requirement to roster staff on before and after school hours, during the recess break, over the longer lunch period, is there an afternoon break as well?
- Do you have Teacher Aides (Assistants) on yard duty as well as teachers? Do they have the same level of duty of care? Do they also have specific industrial requirements? Are they required to complete duty with a qualified teacher present as well (see NQF)?
- Do you have sufficient staff available to cover all of the areas that you allow children to congregate in during the recess and lunch breaks? Will the number of available staff be reduced if you are required to roster staff on duty before or after classroom hours or during staff meetings?
- The age and capabilities of the teacher: are teachers allocated onto yard duties based on their skills as well as their ability to adequately supervise the area in which they have been rostered? It is pointless putting a teacher who has mobility issues on school oval duty or having teachers with no first aid or life-saving skills on duty in a pool area.
In summary, before developing a duty roster, schools need to look closely at industrial requirements, the school environment, the general environment, the qualities and training of their staff, the age and abilities (and sometimes gender) of the children and a raft of other issues such as the ones listed above- the duty roster is not a document that should be left to chance. In addition, as the duty roster may provide evidence of staff supervision if a legal case is brought against the school several years down the track, are all copies of previous rosters stored and easily accessible?
Regardless of the detail and suitability of a duty roster, no roster will be effective if the staff do not take their duties and their responsibility and accountability for attending to their duties and the care of the children very seriously. The development of the duty roster must be accompanied by clear instructions regarding the requirements for the duties, the expectations of the principal and the school and, if necessary, the outcomes for staff if they fail to attend or are deemed culpable in the event of a preventable student injury.