Kris Lines surveys this highly litigated area — and suggests a step-by-step approach to safety within the law

THE provision of physical support to pupils (or lack of) in the course of a PE or games lesson can have serious legal implications for schools. Although the principles in this area have been well established, with many dating back to the 1930s, the fact that this topic continues to be litigated seems to suggest that the area is a constant problem for schools.

  • This article will discuss several reasons why this might be the case, before introducing a possible framework to resolve many of the issues in this area.
  • It will also examine the nature of physical supporting, how and why it should be used, and what new problems its use brings.


Put simply: physical supporting is the process of providing additional support and guidance to a pupil who is performing a skill or movement. There are several reasons why this might be necessary: for example, a novice gymnast vaulting over a box may need help to clear his or her feet over the box top, or to land safely on the other matting at the other side. Pupils performing highly technical movements may also need guidance on where to put their limbs during particular sequences. In both of these cases, it may be appropriate for a teacher to provide physical support in order to help the pupil practice the skill safely. Many of the problems in this area potentially stem from a lack of planning before the activity begins. Indeed, although the ability to support a movement is a skill in its own right, it is important to realise that this skill should be considered within the overall context of the lesson or activity.


Just as the activities within the lesson itself should be differentiated, so the supports being used should also be matched according to the ability of the pupils. The use of physical support should not just be an ad hoc provision or an afterthought if a pupil requests it — but rather it should be progressive and embedded within the planning for each activity.


It is possible to identify five distinct types of physical support that can be used to assist a pupil: 1.  full contact/‘survival’ support 2.  loose support 3.  shadowing 4.  presence nearby 5.  independence

Full Contact/‘Survival’ support

This type of support is mandatory for all new and potentially dangerous movements. For example, teachers should support all first attempts at somersaulting skills in gymnastics or trampolining. Effectively, the teacher applies support to ensure that the pupil can complete the movement safely. As one might expect, this type of physical assistance can be very intrusive for pupils. It is therefore vital that pupils should appreciate the exact mechanics of what is going to happen to them and when. However, to focus solely on what the supporter is doing would be to miss the point of this discussion. If teachers were using the correct, safe progressive practices when introducing the skill, then any support would only need to be applied in the final stages — in other words when the pupil is ready to complete the final movement. This approach can therefore be reconciled with Lord Justice Slesser’s comments in Gibbs v Barking Corporation [1932] — where he said that teachers should support all gymnastic vaults, since full physical support becomes the last in a chain of actions, rather than the first. The success of any assistance will also often depend on the skill of the teacher(s) involved. For example, where pupils are particularly heavy or tall, or where there are obstacles to the teacher moving freely, it may be appropriate to train additional supporters to help. Teachers should assist a pupil with vaulting; however, the level of support used will vary from pupil to pupil according to their technical mastery of the skill.

Loose Support

Loose supporting is where the degree of physical support is lessened in order to allow the pupil to complete more of the movement him or herself. Examples of this might be holding a pupil’s arm throughout a skill in order to control the direction and rotation of the movement.

Phased system

To avoid any misunderstandings between teachers and pupils, it is therefore recommended that a phased system of opting-out of support is used. As pupils become more confident performing the skill, the level of support can be decreased accordingly. Such a system also has the advantage of the pupil controlling how much and when s/he wants the support to be reduced.

Heffer v Wiltshire County Council (1996) In Heffer a 13-year old boy was injured while performing a straddle vault at school. Although a teacher was present by the side of the vault, he did not support the boy, despite the pupil taking off from a one-footed jump.

In holding the school negligent for the boy’s injuries, the judge strongly criticised the system of pupils having to opt-in for support when they wanted it. Such a system was held to be inappropriate because it could be influenced by peer-group pressure preventing pupils from opting in. It also led to a total rather than gradual reduction in support. Devizes County Court (unreported)

Stages of support

Different governing bodies may specify mandatory stages of loose support for skills. For example, British Gymnastics has issued a directive that any pupil wishing to proceed from a hand-supported somersault on a trampoline to an unsupported or shadowed somersault, must have attempted the skill with a belt support first. This process gives the pupil experience of taking off with the arms already upright, while the presence of the judo belt allows the teacher sufficient control of the somersault if the skill under/over-rotates. As the pupil becomes more confident, the teacher’s grip on the belt can progressively be loosened until it resembles little more than a dog lead.


The process of shadowing a skill, ready to apply support if necessary, is potentially the most difficult of the supports to master. The reason this is more difficult than actually supporting a pupil, is that until the skill lands safely, the teacher will not know if any support is necessary or not. Many of the problems in this area stem from teachers not giving enough importance to this role.

Gleave v Lancashire County Council (1951) Gleave also concerns a gymnastics vault case. In this instance, the pupil fell while vaulting over a buck and injured herself. Liability attached to the school, because although the teacher had correctly assessed that the pupil was competent to vault without support, she still needed shadowing by the teacher to guard against under/over-rotation.

(unreported) Croner 3-463

Stapley v Ashford Borough Council (1989)
In Stapley, the instructor allowed a pupil to perform a forward somersault on a trampoline while he shadowed from the corner of the apparatus. When the girl over-rotated and broke her arm, liability attached to the instructor for providing inadequate support.

The court held that he had been overly influenced by the performer’s own evaluation of her competence and that the initial level of support should have been greater. QBD (unreported) 7 Dec 1989

In both of the above examples, the teachers failed to apply a progressive withdrawal of support. At the shadowing stage, teachers should always look to step in and assist the performer, although whether they actually make contact with them or not, will depend on the quality of the skill and the confidence of the pupil.

Presence Nearby

Although this form of support might seem the same as shadowing, there are certain important differences. By maintaining a presence nearby, a teacher can give vocal support and guidance to pupils rather than taking on an active physical role. If at any point, a pupil struggles to complete a move, the teacher is well positioned to shadow or loosely support the pupil’s next attempt.


As the name suggests, this last stage is where the pupil is safe to perform the skill unaided. By this point, the pupil should be confident to land the skill without any external help or guidance. The focus at this stage is purely on aesthetic considerations relating to the positioning of the body and technical accuracy. When the pupil reaches this point, it may be worthwhile to acknowledge his or her achievement through an appropriate reward scheme. Such a scheme will also have the added benefit that the school has a record that this pupil has been judged as safe to perform the skill should an accident later arise.


Although this article has talked at length about teachers applying physical support to pupils, it is also becoming increasingly common for pupils to support each other for skills. Indeed, the use of pupils to support skills was explicitly approved by the Court of Appeal in Wright v Cheshire County Council (1952). With the recent introduction of the United Kingdom Coaching Certificate (UKCC) Level 1 — Assistant Coach Award, and the Junior Sports Leaders Award (JSLA), pupils as young as 14, can attend and gain recognised coaching awards in their sport. The numbers of pupils supporting each other, (whether as qualified assistant coaches or simply as partners in a PE class) are therefore likely to increase in the next few years. However, while this can make the job of the teacher easier within the class, the ultimate responsibility for the safety of the pupils rests with the teacher in charge of the session.

Kershaw v Hampshire CC (1982) In Kershaw, two pupils acted as spotters for a trampette vault in a PE class. Although the claimant had vaulted successfully before, on this occasion she over-rotated and the spotters were unable to prevent her from injuring herself. The judge found the teacher negligent because at the time of the injury, the teacher had left the room to return to her office. It was not sufficient to leave the class supporting each other, especially on such a potentially dangerous apparatus.

(Unreported) Croner 3-460


While this article has touched on the use of physical support from a negligence point of view, it is important to realise that this topic also has implications for child protection. If teachers or pupils are applying physical support to pupils, it is important that the techniques used be appropriate, necessary and correct. Particularly in vaulting and somersaulting skills, or wrestling and martial arts grips, any support applied may potentially contact (or come close to) sensitive areas of the body. For this reason it may be inappropriate for pupils to support members of the opposite sex. The advantages of using a judo belt for trampolining supports should also become clearer now. Because the supporter will be holding the belt at the side of the waist rather than pressed against the front of the body, there is very little risk of any inappropriate contact occurring.


  • any supports used should be progressive and gradual
  • every performer is unique and will require different levels of support
  • teachers should always use the techniques recommended by the national governing body of that sport
  • techniques should be regularly updated
  • any physical support should be appropriate, necessary and explained to the pupil
  • pupils should opt out of support, rather than opt in
  • while pupils can be used to help catch skills, they should be appropriately trained and monitored by the teacher at all times

Kris Lines is a gymnastics and trampolining coach. He also teaches at Birmingham University, where his area of research is sport negligence law FIND OUT MORE

BAALPE Safe Practice in Physical Education (Coachwise, 2004) P Whitlam, Case Law in Physical Education and School Sport: A Guide to Good Practice (BAALPE, Coachwise: 2005) The British Gymnastics policies on support can be downloaded at: Child Protection in Sport (CPSU) guidelines: Menu=234400&Sel=040000