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The Right to a Safe Learning Environment in School

Associate Professor Dr. TIE Fatt Hee
University of Malaya
50603 Kuala Lumpur
Email: tiefh@ um.edu.my

J udicial decisions that concerns students right to a safe learning environment are often guided by
the principles of law established by the court in Australia and the United Kingdom. This approach is
not peculiar as Malaysia shares a common law heritage. To a certain extent, judges are also
provided a degree of freedom to refer to the common law as a guide when making decisions. Thus,
in almost all the cases that relates to education law in Malaysia, the courts have sought the guidance
of the common law, in particular, those that deal with the right of students to study in a safe

Schools have a common law duty of care to anticipate potential risk of injury to students. There is a
legal obligation to take necessary precautions to protect pupils from such risks that arise from
intentional misbehaviour or misadventure. This approach is important as society becomes more
litigious in nature. In addition, educators faced another challenge as the courts seem to have adopted
the step towards extending the boundaries defining an educational authoritys liability for injuries
suffered at school.
The establishment of a safe learning environment in school encompasses both
indoor and out door educational programmes and activities. In order to do so, teachers have a
specific obligation to provide proper supervision, ensure adequate instruction, maintain equipment
and facilities, and warn students of known dangers. The standard of care that is required of teachers
also take into consideration the age of the pupils, the experience and level of maturity, the type and

Ramsay I M & Shorten A R (1996) Education and the Law. Butterworths: Sydney.
nature of the activity, and the environment itself within which the possibility of injury occurs. The
standard of care is high when dealing with younger pupils as they require closer supervision.

The duty to provide a safe learning environment in the classroom
A sound classroom management is vital to ensure a safe learning environment. There is a need for
educators to maintain an appropriate level of discipline, compliance with school rules and
regulations among pupils. Teachers are under a duty to restrain misbehaviour, particularly, among
pupils who are playful, mischievous, or even those who are restless and tend to wander around the
classroom to disturb other pupils. These pupils may intentionally or unintentionally injure others as
a result of their misbehaviour. Teachers who fail to take preventive measures to reduce such
behaviour expose themselves to negligence suit as they have breached their duty of care when they
neglect to provide reasonable supervision to ensure that students are safe. Parents would also allege
that the teachers have breached their duty of care as it can be proved that there is a causal
relationship between the injuries suffered by the plaintiff student and the negligence of the teacher.

The law requires teachers to provide proper supervision to pupils. However, constant vigilance at all
times may not be reasonably expected as teachers are not required to anticipate every possible
accident. This principle was laid down by the court in the case of Government of Malaysia & Ors v
Jumat bin Mahmud & Anor.
A pupil, aged eleven years old, had pricked another pupils thigh
with a pin. The shock that was produced caused him to turn his head around. Unfortunately, his
right eye came into contact with the sharp end of the pencil. The eye had to be removed. The High
Court held that the plaintiff would not have suffered the serious injury if the teacher had paid
particular attention to the behaviour of the recalcitrant pupil. The teacher had breached the duty of
care when she did not provide sufficient or reasonable supervision. She was negligent as she did not
pay proper attention to the pupil who had wandered to the back of the class. The teachers lack of

[1977] 2 MLJ 103.
supervision in the classroom had caused the injury. On appeal, the Federal Court did not concur
with the decision of the High Court. In delivering the judgment, Raja Azlan Shah FJ states:

The question here is whether there was evidence from which a logical and
reasonable inference could be drawn that as a result of the teachers momentary
inattention the injury to the plaintiff was reasonably foreseeable..With due respect
to the trial judge the evidence falls short of the requirement that the injury sustained
by the plaintiff was of a kind or type of class reasonably foreseeable as a result of
Mrs. Kennys wrongful act, assuming she was wrongful.

A critical issue that arises is how much supervision is required of a school teacher in a classroom to
protect the pupils from injury. The courts will normally seek to determine whether the teacher can
foresee the risk of injury and whether the injury could have been prevented. In this instance,
Federal Court referred to Ricketts v Erith Borough Council
during its examination of the nature
and type of duty of care expected of a teacher. In the later case, the court attempted to define the
nature of the duty of care. It described the duty of care expected of a teacher as that which is
required of a careful father that takes care of his own children. The Federal Court also referred to
the case of Richards v State of Victoria
. The teacher is under a duty of care to take reasonable
measures to protect the plaintiff against the risks of injury that can be reasonably foreseen. The
Federal Court concluded that the teacher did not reasonably foresee the type of injury caused by the
sharp end of a pencil. .With respect to the question of causation, it held that the teacher did not
breached the duty of care as she did not exposed the plaintiff to an injury of the type that could
reasonably have been foreseen. It further reiterated that constant vigilance in the classroom would
not have prevented the injury.

[1943] 2 All ER 629. 631.
[1969] VR 139, 141.
In a subsequent case
, the court had to determine on three issues that concerns classroom teaching
and learning, namely: - instruction, warning, and supervision. The plaintiff pupil, aged seven years
old, fell and broke her right hand while participating in a music lesson. The accident occurred after
the pupils have moved around the classroom following a train-like movement when the music was
played. The parents claimed that the teacher was negligent as she did not provide adequate
instruction and warning to the pupils before the music lesson commenced. In addition, the teacher
was alleged to have failed to provide sufficient supervision to the pupils. However, the court
dismissed the action based on the argument that the type of injury that occurred in the music class
could not be foreseen in a reasonable manner. The class did not use any dangerous equipments and
it was not necessary for the music teacher to give instruction or a warning each time the lesson
commences. After a detailed and meticulous examination of the three issues, the court concluded
that the teacher had provided reasonable supervision to the pupils and she did not carelessly expose
the pupil to the injury.

Supervision during the practical lesson outside the classroom
Teachers have a duty to provide pupils with sufficient instruction before the commencement of a
lesson. The risk of injury is foreseeable when a lesson requires the use of dangerous equipments. In
such situations, the nature and quality of instruction that is expected differs from that of a normal
lesson. The risk of injury is higher during a chemistry experiment lesson compared to a history
lesson. As such, teachers have to ensure that the quality of instruction is of a much higher standard.
In addition, teachers should be aware of the propensity of pupils to indulge in mis-behaviour when
left to their own devices. In one instance, a pupil suffered serious injuries when he was accidentally
struck on the head by an implement wielded by another pupil during an agricultural gardening
The parents claimed that the teacher failed to provide proper supervision of the pupils and
also failed to instruct the pupil who caused the injury on the proper use of the implement. The High

Zazlin Zahira Hj Kamarulzaman dan satu lagi lwn Louis Marie Neube Rt Ambrose a/l J Ambrose dan lain-lain [1994]
35 MLJ U 1
Mohamed Raihan bin Ibrahim & Anor v. Government of Malaysia & Ors. [1981] 2 MLJ 27.
Court dismissed the claim and held that the teacher had given proper instructions and warnings on
the use of the gardening implements. There were reasonable steps and precautions to ensure the
safety of the pupils. On appeal, the Federal Court did not agree with the decision of the lower court.
It found that the teacher had failed to take reasonable and proper steps to prevent the pupil from
sustaining the injury. The teacher did not check the condition of the garden tools and also provide a
safe system of conducting the garden lesson. There was insufficient warning as to the use of the
dangerous instruments. She did not take steps to see that the pupils were positioned within a safe
distance between each other during the activity in order to avoid injuries. Proper instructions were
not given as her instruction to the pupils to keep a distance of 3 to 4 feet between them was not
deemed to be a safe distance. The pupils were left to their own devices with general instructions to
complete the work as best as they could. Neither did she did give instructions as to the use of the
implement. The court also emphasised that the degree of supervision depends on the circumstances
of the case such as the age, experience, and maturity of the pupils, as well as the nature of the
activity they were doing. Under the circumstances, the general warning provided by the teacher was
deemed to be insufficient. The pupils, who were of a very young age, were talking, playing, joking
and standing very close to one another. Thus, the court held that the mere warning to be careful that
was provided by the teacher does not amount to proper supervision. There were no reasonable steps
and precautions taken to ensure the safety of pupils as she did not distribute the dangerous
implements to the pupils according to the instructions contained in a letter that has been specifically
issued by the Ministry of Education. If she had checked the condition of the garden tools, she would
have discovered the defect of the implement, that is, a loose blade. The teacher was negligent as she
did not take reasonable and proper steps to prevent the pupil from sustaining the injury. This
opinion was expressed by Salleh Abas FJ when he states that:

.this is a case where a teacher appreciating that the boys were handling dangerous
instruments had not given sufficient warning as to their use nor had she taken steps
to see that pupils were positioned within such distance between them as avoid
injuries from being inflicted.

School have a professional and legal obligation to maintain a safe environment. Teachers are
required to take reasonable precautions to minimise the risks of injury to pupils who are at the
playground. The potential dangers of unsupervised play are foreseeable and pupils are more prone
to accident and injury.
In addition, it is important to maintain the playground and its equipments in
a safe manner. Potentially dangerous equipments must be removed immediately. In Silvadurai a/l
Kunnary & Anor v Pengetua Sekolah Rendah Jenis kebangsaan Cina Chung Hwa Asahan, Muar,
Johor & Ors
, a standard two pupil alighted from the see-saw, accidentally tripped, tumbled, and
fell head down on some rocks. The rocks were placed there for landscaping and aesthetic value. It
was part of the programme to decorate and beautify the school compound. Three days later, the
deceased succumbed to injuries. The plaintiffs filed an action against the headmaster, the Ministry
of Education, and the Government of Malaysia, alleging negligence. The magistrate court dismissed
the claim. On appeal, the High Court concurred with the earlier decision. It held that the school had
exercised adequate supervise of the pupils at the playground.

Certain schools allow school buses to enter the school compound to fetch pupils. In such cases, the
duty of care demanded of teachers is high. As such, vigilant and close supervision is needed. There
is a legal and professional duty to take reasonable precautions to ensure that pupils are safe under
such circumstances. Accidents involving school bus within the school compound, in the absence of
proper and vigilant teacher supervision, expose the school to negligence suits. In Headmistress,
Methodist Girls School & Ors v Headmaster, Anglo-Chinese Primary School & Anor
, a pupil
aged 9 years was seriously injured when she was knocked down by a school bus while walking in

Tronc, K. ( 1996). You, your school and the law: legal advice and guidance for teachers and administrators in todays
schools. Fenfawn Publications: Brisbane.
[1996] 331 MLJ U 1
[1984] 1 MLJ 293
the school compound. The father sued the bus driver who in turn sued the school claiming that the
school was also partially liable for allowing the bus to enter the compound. The lower court found
the bus driver to be wholly liable. Nevertheless, the Federal Court reversed the decision. It held that
the school authorities were under a duty of care to keep the premises safe and have to share the
blame. The total liability was apportioned at 30% against the school authorities and 70% against the
bus driver and company.

The right to a safe environment during extracurricular activities
School extracurricular activities are encouraged by the Ministry of Education. These activities form
part of the school curriculum and all pupils are encouraged to participate in at least one
extracurricular unit. Schools are required to adhere strictly to the rules and regulations established
by the authorities when extracurricular activities are organised. It is mandatory to comply with the
procedures that have been stipulated. Examples include obtaining the approval of the education
department, consent of the school principal and permission of parents, and adhering to the
guidelines related to safety. The duty of care demanded of teachers is not confined to school hours.
It extends to official outdoor activities organised by the school. Educators need to be aware of the
legal implications when they organise outdoor extracurricular activities. The supervision of
dangerous activities like swimming, jungle trekking, and camping must be conducted by trained
teachers. Expertise in first-aid and accident response techniques is essential to minimise future
litigation. These aspects must be considered by the authorities very seriously as it is possible for
teachers who are unskilled and unwilling to be vested with this tremendous responsibility based on
the reason that there is simply insufficient trained teachers available. In terms of supervision, the
Ministry has set out the ratio of teacher supervisors to pupils. Teacher supervisors need to provide
close supervision when a dangerous activity is carried out by young, less mature, experience, and
skilful pupils.
In Chen Soon Lee v Chong Voon Pin & Ors.
, the defendants were the principal and two teachers
who had accompanied a group of students to a picnic by the sea on a Sunday. While playing a ball
game in waist deep water, some students moved to a depression and found themselves in difficulty.
One of the students drowned in the mishap. The administrator of the deceased student claimed that
the defendants were negligent due to a lack of supervision. The court held that the principal and the
teachers owed no duty of care to the deceased or her father to provide supervision. However, it
pointed out that even assuming that the defendants owed such a duty, they had done all they
possibly could to ensure the safety of the students.

The court referred to a number of cases from Australia and the United Kingdom. It applied the test
of approved practice laid down in the case of Wright v Cheshire County Council
where the
Court of Appeal held that the defendants had followed a generally approved practice during the
physical training of vaulting the buck. One has to examine what is the norm in ordinary daily
affairs when one seeks to determine whether there was reasonable care provided. In Wrights

case, the defendants were not liable for the injury of the plaintiff since it was shown that the
practice has been allowed for a number of years.

The court also consider the analysis of the term a careful father that was expressed in the case of
Rich & Anor v London County Council
In the latter, the Court of Appeal states that the duty owed
by the defendants to the boys was to take such care of them as a careful parent would exercise in
like circumstances. Another case that was referred to was Wray v Essex County Council
the Court of Appeal found that the oil can that caused injury to the plaintiff was not inherently
dangerous. As such, the master was not liable as he was not under a duty to take special

[1966] 2 MLJ 264
[1952] 1 All ER 789
[1953] 2 All ER 376
[1936] 3 All ER 97
In Chen Soon Lee v Chong Voon Pin & Ors, the pupils organised the picnic themselves. It was a
Sunday a public holiday. The teachers have the right to refuse to accede to the pupils request to
accompany them. The court pointed out that the pupils could have gone there themselves. However,
they were of sufficient intelligence to wish to have the teachers with them. Although they were
young, the court reiterated that they should not be treated as described by Lord Goddard in Camkin
v Bishop
as if they were infants at crches and no master is obliged to arrange for constant and
perpetual watching out of school hours.

Finally, the court held that the headmaster did not owe a duty to the deceased or his father to
provide for supervision of the boys. Nevertheless, if it is assumed that there is a duty, the school had
done all they possibly could to ensure the safety of the pupils. There was no evidence to show that
the teachers had been at fault or neglected their duty that caused the deceased to drown.

There is a risk of injury inherent in any activity in the teaching and learning process. Teachers have
a legal obligation to protect pupils from any foreseeable harm. The in loco parentis doctrine places
a significant responsibility on all teachers to ensure that the right to learn in a safe environment is
maintained. There is a need to take reasonable measures like a careful parent to protect pupils. The
duty of care that is expected is determined by a number of factors such as the age, ability, and
maturity level of the pupils. In Malaysia, the courts tend to examine and determine the right of
pupils to a safe learning environment based on the judicial decisions of the common law countries.

[1941] 2 All ER 713