On a recent visit to Manchester, a trainee teacher told me about a night out he’d had at a local pub. He had spotted a couple of his pupils who were only sixteen and seventeen drinking alcohol. I asked him what he did, and he replied: “I didn’t do anything. It’s outside school hours and not my responsibility.”
Trainee teachers have often raised this dilemma – what should they do if they see, for example, their under-aged pupils drinking or smoking or doing something they shouldn't? How does a teacher’s responsibility to safeguard children and young people apply outside the school?
I pressed this trainee. He was adamant. "It's not my responsibility. It's their parents'."
I continued to probe: "Let’s say these kids start to get drunk. Knowing these kids from school, do you go over and say: "Come on, guys. You shouldn't be drinking. Off you go home."
"No, I wouldn't do that," the trainee said.
"Do you inform the landlord these kids are under-age?"
"No," he continued. "That's the landlord's job, not mine."
"OK..." I continued. "Let's say a fight breaks out and these kids start throwing tables and chairs around and one picks up a bottle and smashes it across another's face. There's serious injury. An ambulance has to be called. Do you feel any sense of responsibility or guilt that you could have intervened to prevent this?"
"No," insisted the trainee. "This is my Saturday night. It's none of my business."
"OK... Let's say for the sake of argument," I continued," that I am the parent of the kid who's had a bottle smashed across his face and I discover that you were in the pub that night and I come into school on the Monday and confront you with the news that my child has been scarred for life. What would say to me?"
The trainee stared back at me and said: "This is what I'd say to you: 'Where were you?' You're the boy's parent. Where were you while your son or daughter is out drinking and fighting? I'm not the one responsible for your child, you are!"
Legally, that's a perfectly defensible position to take. Legally, you have no responsibility to intervene in a situation like that if you don't want to - either as a teacher or as a citizen.
The problem for teachers is that there are millions of people in this country - and my argument would be it's the majority - who would have a moral expectation of a teacher in that situation - as a role model. Most people would expect a teacher to intervene in some way if they saw a child, particularly one they knew personally, to be in some form of danger or at risk. How you might intervene is not clear, but, in my view, most people would expect a teacher not to just stand-by and turn a blind eye, but to do something.
What are the legitimate expectations of parents or the general public in situations like this?
What do you think a teacher’s responsibilities are outside of school hours?
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.
His new book: ‘Becoming a teacher – the legal, ethical and moral implications of entering society’s most fundamental profession’ is published by Crown House Publishing and can be ordered here.