The overwhelming majority of cases commenced against Catholic school authorities include an allegation that there was a breach of duty to provide any or any adequate supervision.
During those periods when the teacher and pupil relationship is in existence, it is necessary for the teachers assigned to supervision duties to closely and directly supervise children under their care and for the school authority to ensure that an adequate system of supervision is put in place to protect pupils from a foreseeable risk of injury.
The Courts have historically avoided any specific formula or directive as to how much supervision is adequate. Rather, the Courts have always stated that it depends on the circumstances of the particular case in question.
Some guidance on this point was given by the High Court in 1982 in the celebrated “flagpole case” of Commonwealth of Australia v Introvigne (1982) 56 ALJR 749. In this case, a 15 year old boy was skylarking with some of his friends in the school quadrangle before school was due to commence. They swung on the halyard attached to the flagpole. Without warning, the truss fastened to the top of the flagpole became detached and fell, striking Master Introvigne on the head and severely injuring him. There were about 900 pupils in the playground at the time. All members of the teaching staff except one were at a staff meeting called by the acting principal to inform the staff that the principal had died. The meeting only lasted 5 minutes during which time the accident occurred. One staff member was excused from the meeting to supervise the children in the grounds.
Justice Mason conceded that the school teachers’ duty of care does not require that 15 year old boys be kept under constant supervision and observation. However, his Honour held that “… It would be unreal to suggest that no supervision was called for. In ordinary circumstances, supervision at that time was provided by members of the teaching staff ranging in number from 5 to 20. This provides some measure of what was considered to be appropriate …”
By providing only one teacher, the school authority failed to provide an adequate system of supervision to ensure that Master Introvigne was not exposed to an unnecessary risk of injury. The Court found that the flagpole was a lure for children and that the risk of children incorrectly playing with it was foreseeable in the sense that it was not farfetched or fanciful.
More recently, the High Court again examined the issue of supervision in the playground in The Trustees of the Roman Catholic Church for the Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn v Hadba  HCA 31. In this case, an 8 year old girl was injured while using a flying fox in a playground during a recess period. The particular area where the plaintiff was injured was supervised by two teachers. The school had in place a ‘hands off rule’ requiring the children not to touch each other during play. This rule was regularly reinforced at school assemblies. During the morning recess, the plaintiff ascended a platform of the flying fox and took hold of the triangle in preparation to ride across to the other platform. There were approximately 40 children in the area. Contrary to the school rules, a boy and girl in Year 3 each grabbed one of the plaintiff’s legs. The plaintiff struggled to free herself, and was pulled off the flying fox; her face struck the platform as she fell to the ground.
The High Court held that supervising teachers cannot be everywhere at once and that constant supervision (involving a specific commitment of staff and financial resources) goes beyond the bounds of reasonableness. The Court recognised that constant supervision of students is also likely to retard the teacher/pupil relationship by removing the element of trust. Further, the High Court held on the question of causation that a different supervision regime would have been unlikely to prevent the plaintiff’s injuries.
Sporting and recreational activities
Another important decision in the area of supervision, particularly involving sporting and recreational activities, is The Trustees of the Roman Catholic Church for the Archdiocese of Sydney v Kondrajian  NSWCA 308. In this case, the Court of Appeal considered the liability of a Catholic school in conducting a modified game of hockey in which the plaintiff was tragically killed when accidentally struck by a hockey stick wielded by another student.
The Court of Appeal made the following observations:
- The duty is only to take reasonable care for the safety of the pupils concerned.
- A school is not absolutely liable for injuries sustained by pupils where they are under the supervision of their teachers.
- Reasonable steps should be taken to guard against foreseeable conduct on the part of children that may result in harm to themselves or others.
- Where an injury is caused by an unfortunate concurrence of circumstances that reasonable precautions could not have prevented, no breach of duty will have occurred.
- Factors such as the benefits of the game, the magnitude of the risk involved, its degree of probability, the degree of possibility of inadvertence or negligent conduct on the part of participating children, the training given to the children and their skill level, are important in determining whether reasonable steps were taken to prevent injury occurring.
Supervision is a key element in the discharge of a Catholic school’s duty of care towards pupils under its control. The above cases illustrate the way in which Courts interpret this duty, whether it be in the playground, classroom or during sporting/recreational activities.
It is clear that since the NSW Court of Appeal decision in Kondrajian in 2001, superior courts are taking a more realistic and commonsense approach towards the analysis of this duty and in particular having greater regard to the reality that school authorities cannot provide direct one-on-one supervision of pupils at all times.
The level of supervision required is such as is commensurate with the activity taking place rather than any artificial formula which applies in every situation.