Monday, 31 January 2011

Busybody's charter

Picture the scene: a seminar for teachers on child welfare and safety in which a lot of sensible suggestions were being discussed. Then the speaker at the meeting asked the group: "What do you do if a parent has the smell of alcohol on his breath?" Some teachers said they thought this would be a problem that should be reported. One teacher pointed out to the group that it is perfectly legal to drink, to which the speaker replied, "Yes, that's problematic."

The discussion of the hypothetical scenario then went on to the situation where the parent might also be driving and was in the view of the teacher unfit to drive. The recommended course of action was to delay the parent and phone the office to let the head or deputy head know, but not to let the child go and if necessary contact the police.

I think most people would agree that any person (not just a teacher) who sees a driver who is clearly drunk getting into a car with a child has a responsibility to do something, whether by direct intervention or phoning the police. But this discussion began with the smell of alcohol on a parent's breath, rather than obvious incapacity, and it's sometimes forgotten that drinking and driving within the limit is legal. There are so many pitfalls here:

If a parent has a tendency to violence and has had too much to drink, that teacher is taking a big personal risk. But the majority of parents, while obviously not violent, would nonetheless be unhappy to stand around waiting while the teacher went off to phone the head and would demand to know what was going on and why they couldn't have their child. I also wonder what legal right the school has to refuse to hand over a child whom the parent has come to take home.

How can a teacher judge if someone is unfit to drive? Unless the parent was staggering about, this is not necessarily obvious, not even to the police, which is why they use breathalysers rather than their judgement, even though they're probably better judges of drunkenness than teachers.

If as a result of the teacher's actions a parent is breathalysed and found to be within the limit, they would still have their fingerprints and DNA retained. If that happened to me, I'd be checking whether I'd have any legal redress against the school for causing that to happen. I would also consider suing the school if as a result of their actions any gossip spread among the parents about the school refusing to release my child to me because I'd had a drink (which on the grapevine would doubtless end up reported as being drunk).

But ultimately, as my contact told me, the fact that drinking is a legal activity was dismissed as "problematic"; in other words, the parent's right to have a drink was not seen as relevant. It's not the job of teachers to become arms of the anti-alcohol lobby; doing so could cause irremediable damage to the relationship between school and parents, and a disgruntled parent isn't likely to encourage a positive attitude in their children towards school.

So here we have a suggestion which may put teachers at risk, which would infringe a parent's right to indulge in a legal activity and which would also damage the relationship between a school and its parents and children.

Did they think any of this through? My contact believes not, and I agree.


  1. I think this was a useful excercise to get teachers thinking, but no recommendations should have been made at this seminar as nobody would know the individual circumstances. It only takes half a pint or a glass of wine to make your breath smell of alcohol.

    As an ex primary school headteacher I would often have interviews with parents who smelt of drink, but I never considered telephoning the police or Social Services. I made it my job to know as much as possible about the home circumstances of each child and who they were living with. If I was happy with that I didn't see it as my responsibility to question parents about how many units they had consumed. Having said that I would have been very concerned if they had been obviously drunk.

    I spent a high percentage of my time trying to build links with the parents and the community as a whole. If people thought I was sitting there in judgment I would be isolating both myself and the community we were trying to serve.

  2. I agree with all that. It's not an easy situation for a school, but my contact was concerned that some teachers, perhaps young and inexperienced, may put themselves at risk.

    If a staff member who had not been given adequate (or any) safety training for this situation was assaulted by a parent who was actually drunk, the employer could be held liable. Someone could end up paying a lot in damages.

  3. I was going going to use the term young teachers in my opening paragraph but did not want to appear paronising.

    Other than that I totally agree with you Nevile. Younger people may not have the life skills to deal with or de-fuse certain situations and could find them selves in a difficult or dangerous position without having the relevant skills to help them deal with it.


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