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Luton Borough Council was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) late last year following an incident at a high school in which an assistant headteacher was attacked by a pupil and left with life-changing injuries.
Luton Borough Council pleaded guilty last October to breaching Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and was fined £104,000 with £60,000 costs. The fine was reduced from £300,000 due to the council’s lack of revenue as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
On 17 June 2016, the assistant headteacher at Putteridge High School was called to deal with a disruptive pupil who was refusing to go into a detention room. The pupil launched a sustained assault on the teacher, using a mobile phone and inflicting life-changing injuries.
An investigation by the HSE found that there were significant shortcomings in relation to the measures at the school, regarding violence and aggression posed by the pupils to others. In addition, there had been no effective consideration given to the risk of injury or death posed by the pupils to others and measures were not taken to reduce that threat to as low as reasonably practicable.
Luton Crown Court heard that at the time of the attack, Putteridge High School had no risk assessments to protect staff from violent pupils. Specifically, the school's board of governors had opted against a violence and aggression safety policy, despite workplace guidance from the Department for Education in 2014.
Why was the local authority held ultimately responsible in this case?
In community schools, where the local authority is the employer, the local authority has a responsibility to monitor the arrangements its schools have in place to manage the risk from violence and aggression.
Despite the day to day running of the school being the responsibility of the headteacher and board of governors, Luton Borough Council was the employer at the time of the attack in 2016, and therefore, the obligation to monitor the arrangements the school had in place to manage the risk from violence and aggression fell on them as the employer. Consequently, Luton Borough Council pleaded guilty to one count in breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
The HSE held that Luton Borough Council had not ensured that the school had people with sufficient competence in the management of health and safety involved in running the school to ensure that the health and safety threat was addressed. The council did not see to it that staff members at the school had the training, either to remedy that shortcoming or to deal with violent and aggressive pupils in a way which did not expose them to risk. The council also failed to monitor the adequacy of the measures Putteridge High School had in place and the council, therefore, failed to pick up and address the shortcomings.
Her Honour Judge Mensah in sentencing said: “Not to have brought a prosecution in this serious case would, apart from anything else, have sent a completely wrong message to the school, its governors, the staff and pupils, other local authorities with responsibilities under the Education Acts and to the public generally… This was a large organisation which, to a very large extent, relied on employees conducting the day to day running of the school as it could not, and did not, have complete control over the daily functioning of the school. However, I am satisfied that the systems that were in place were inadequate and oversight by the local authority was ‘light’ – I accept that no concerns were brought to the attention of the local authority but that equally, it does not appear that the local authority invited matters to be brought to its attention.”
This case emphasises the importance of schools needing the necessary arrangements in place to manage risk.
The Health and Safety at Work Act places obligations on the employer, however, who the employer is will vary depending on the type of school and the legal structure of the school. For example, for community schools, voluntary-controlled schools, maintained nursery schools and pupil referral units, the employer is most likely the local authority. Whereas for academies, free schools, voluntary-aided and foundation schools, it will be the school governors or trustees.
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