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A child gets left behind. Who is responsible?

A six year old school boy was found safe, though very cold, after spending the night wandering around the Newport Pagnell service station on the M1 motorway. He had been on a school-trip to London and somehow became detached from the group on the coach that was returning him home to Nottingham when it made a toilet stop.

Whatever the details of this case… whether it was parents responsible … or teachers… for whatever went on… why the child was able to wander off unattended… going to… or from… the toilets… or why the absence of the child wasn’t noticed when the bus set-off… all of these details are as yet unknown.

Questions will and should be asked about who is responsible.

The story reminds me of an incident that happened to me when I was a class teacher.

Every Monday afternoon my Year 6 class had a swimming lesson at the local swimming pool. Most kids loved having a weekly swimming lesson and appreciated how lucky they were to have the opportunity.

A few absolutely loathed it. They hated taking-off their clothes in draughty changing rooms, exposing their bodies to others, tip-toeing on the cold tiles to sit at the edge of a daunting pool, the shock of jumping into icy water while trying their best to stay afloat, splashing around and swallowing water for a full half-an-hour.

There was one boy – I’ll call him Lee Smith – who was one such loather of the weekly swimming lesson. A very clever, cerebral boy who, though a little precocious, much preferred reading a good book to doing anything physical. His mother regularly indulged his preference by submitting to his weekly request for a ‘sick-note’. It would read something like: “Lee has got a bit of a cold at the moment, so I’d prefer that he didn’t go swimming this week.” Next week it would read: “Lee has sprained his ankle, so I don’t think he should go swimming until it’s better.” And so on... and so on…

The swimming pool was a classic Victorian building with a balcony for spectators above its perimeter. Though there was a professional swimming instructor, I would be involved in supervising and teaching some kids in the pool, usually the complete non-swimmers. I would send Lee (and anyone who else who was not taking the lesson) up to the balcony to watch it, or in his case, read whatever book he was already half-way through. Lee and others would see when the lesson was finished, when the rest of their class were getting out of the pool and then re-join us in the changing rooms to take the bus back to school.

I remember these swimming lessons as a form of torment for me as a teacher. They were always incredibly pressured. The pool was far enough away from the school that we needed a local authority bus to take us there and back. Sometimes it was a bit late arriving from the previous school, so the bus driver would already be stressed, trying to rush us on and off the bus. We’d arrive at the pool - and while most kids would happily change quickly - some would dawdle and drag their feet.

If we were a couple of minutes late, the swimming instructor would be stressed trying to get the excited class to listen to his instructions in the impossibly inaudible echoing pool. Then when the lesson finished, we had to get the kids quickly out of the pool (and now the enthusiastic kids would be the ‘dawdlers’ getting out), showered and dressed – a process that took at least twenty minutes.

Once dressed and back outside, the engine-running school bus would be even more late and the stressed-out driver even more stressed than he was before. This was the pattern throughout the school year. Lee was almost always the non-swimming passenger.

One week, just after we returned to class, Lee and his mother appeared at the classroom door with my head teacher. “Apparently Mr. Newland, Lee was left at the swimming pool this afternoon.” While the head teacher wasn’t angry, Lee’s mum launched into a series of accusations about how irresponsible I had been: “How could I have not noticed he was on the bus?”… “Lee was left alone for half an hour!”… “He could have come to serious harm!”… etc etc etc.

I was mortified. I had to admit to my head teacher (a kindly and supportive woman) that – in the rush to get the children on the bus and back to school - I had failed to count them. I apologised to Lee’s mum, but she was having none of it – she wanted blood too. She announced she would be making a formal complaint about me that her child was left “in danger”.

I looked at Lee, at this point looking very satisfied with himself. So I decided to ask a couple of questions myself.

“Lee, why didn’t you re-join the class in the changing rooms at the end of the lesson?

Alarm appeared on his face.

“You do that every other week when we go swimming. Why not this week?” I pressed.

“I didn’t notice the lesson had finished;” he said.

“You didn’t notice the lesson had finished?”


“You didn’t notice when all the screaming and shouting in an echo-filled swimming pool suddenly stopped?”

“No,” he said.

“For half an hour, you didn’t notice that?”

This time he didn’t answer. I looked at his mum and the dawning of embarrassment began to appear on her face.

“Mrs Smith, I’m sorry I left Lee at the swimming pool this afternoon. I shouldn’t have done that. But Lee is the most intelligent boy in this class and one of the most intelligent I have ever taught. I don’t accept that he was sitting in the balcony of the swimming pool for half an hour and didn’t notice that all the children had gone.”

Lee said nothing. His mum looked at him: “I’ll speak to you when you get home,” she said and off she went.

Teachers have responsibilities they cannot duck. I was negligent in not counting the children back on the bus or noticing that Lee wasn’t with us when we got back. I allowed myself to be distracted by the pressures on other people.

But even a ten-year old child has the intelligence and the agency to know when they are creating a mischief. That needs to be pointed out when it happens. Don’t be afraid to do it if and when it happens to you.

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. 

You may be interested in his course in ‘The Foundations of Professionalism in Teaching’ – a 3-module course with over 4.5 hours of HD quality video presentations, additional course reading and materials, self assessment exercises and completion certificates.


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