School sports and concussion

07 September 2023

Whilst rare, serious injury can happen. Having the right procedures in place and knowing what to do can reduce the risks.

White lines at corner of grass sports pitch

The benefit of playing sport and participating in other physical activity in schools is not only the enhancement of a student’s physical health but also their mental and social well-being. This should continue to be encouraged. However, engaging in such activity is not without some risk of injury.

For some, there is concern about the long-term health effect concussion can have on children. Concussion is a form of traumatic brain injury and can be caused by impact in contact sports and other activities.

We found around a third of educational establishments are concerned about the risks associated with students playing contact sports such as rugby1. Research by Return2Play has also shown that concussion can be the result of an incident in 15 sports, not just rugby2.

Taking reasonable precautions to ensure all sporting activities are safe

There is the possibility that a school can be held liable for injuries where there is evidence of negligence. The following examples show how this can arise:

Assessing pupils are of an appropriate age and maturity to play in a particular match

Two schools are competing when a collision occurs between pupils. The injured party seeks to claim against one of the schools for the injury.

  • The school was held liable for the actions of a member of staff who selected a pupil for a match who was over the applicable age for the group and therefore was not fairly or appropriately matched with the other players.
  • The pupil’s weight, superior size and maturity contributed to an opposing player being hurt.

Ensuring staff are adequately trained

The referee attending a match between two schools is fairly inexperienced. He allows a less experienced substitute to come on and play in the front row. The substitute is injured in a scrum and seeks to claim against the school.

  • The referee should have made a basic enquiry with the team captain concerning the substitute’s ability to play in the front row.
  • The ‘home’ school is usually responsible for appointing match officials and could therefore be liable for the referee’s decision.

Following correct procedures

A student was stuck by a hockey stick during a PE match. When swung, the stick caught the claimant in the mouth which led to dental injuries.

  • The school was found liable because staff had not checked that students were wearing gum shields.

Providing sufficient supervision

Pupils are playing with a tennis ball (not a game of tennis) and the ball hits one of the pupils in the eye causing loss of some central vision.

  • The school could be found liable as the group was not being adequately supervised.

Managing the risk of concussion

The arrangements necessary for managing the risk from concussion will be dependent upon a school’s individual circumstances. This may involve consideration of:

  • physical safety precautions to reduce the risk of concussion
  • supervision during competitive play or any related training activity
  • adequate numbers of staff to officiate and coach
  • arrangements in the event of an emergency
  • suitable precautions during play
  • concussion management, following injury
  • training and information for staff and others
  • information for students, parents and guardians
  • checking periodically that arrangements remain effective
  • keeping of appropriate records.
Detailed advice on how to manage the risk of concussion in schools can be found in our guidance.

A sense of perspective

Ecclesiastical receives hundreds of notifications of incidents but few become actual claims. However serious an incident can be, the majority of claims that we do see do not involve serious injury and even fewer involve concussion. What is evident is that incidents are often not reported until weeks later, making investigation and successful defence difficult.

Our top tips

  • Ensure staff are trained and have awareness of current guidelines for the activity they’re involved with
  • Ensure staff follow relevant policies and procedures (including sporting body rules and qualifications of officials), for example the AfPE’s ‘Safe Practice in Physical Education’ guide
  • Precautions and supervision should be in place as identified by a risk assessment
  • Record and report accidents as soon as possible
  • When lending facilities or outsourcing, ensure there is transparency around arrangements and responsibilities.

1 Ecclesiastical Annual Education Tracking Survey 2017, based on 121 responses from educational establishments.

2 Return2Play prep school concussion stats 2022.