”If I can’t see it, it can’t bite me”

This is potentially the most dangerous and irresponsible mindset to adopt for anyone in a responsible position of authority within the school community. I know that’s a harsh statement. Let me clarify this in scenario terms.

Setting the scene… You’re a School Principal and a committee of students approaches you to ask permission and assistance to organise a formal.

Scenario 1/ You say Yes. You grant permission. You assign a staff member, or a volunteer parent to take charge. You administer everything and even send a delegation of staff down to the event on the night to take part.

The outcome? The school automatically attracts a potential liability exposure.

Scenario 2/ You say OK. You grant permission but aside from giving the event your blessing, you assign all responsibility for managing and running the event to the student committee.

The outcome? The school automatically attracts a potential liability exposure.

Scenario 3/ You say NO. You grant no permission. You deny all permission for any such event to even take place. The school name is not allowed to be used. You threaten the students with expulsion if they have a formal. That’s pretty extreme but it’s also very common.

The outcome? The school automatically attracts a potential liability exposure. (What? – Keep reading)

Scenario 4/ In this one, nobody approaches you at all. You become aware that a formal is being planned but you decide not to speak about it since you’re not involved and nobody has even mentioned it to you.

The outcome? The school automatically attracts a potential liability exposure. (What? – Keep reading)

Scenario 5/ In this one, nobody approaches you at all. You hear, know and assume absolutely nothing about a formal. The thought never even crosses your mind.

The outcome? The school automatically attracts a potential liability exposure. (What? – Keep reading)

Is the outcome beginning to appear repetitive? The fact is that no matter what your position is with regard to the formal, hands on, hands off, knowledge, no knowledge, the formal is taking place whether you like it or not and you may be in the firing line for liability if it goes badly.

So why is this liability exposure attracted in every case? Surely not even knowing about the existence of a formal renders the Principal and the school free of any blame, right? Wrong!

The Department of Education, (whose senior policy people told me this directly, and I’m paraphrasing), considers a Principal to be a very senior and highly regarded officer within the education system. Such appointments are made only when the Department identifies individuals who have demonstrated superior ability in sound judgement, experience and understanding of what constitutes the welfare of students and staff under their supervision. With such position comes an equally powerful level of responsibility and expectation of sound execution of these duties.

It is considered a Principal’s JOB to KNOW, or at the very least reasonably assume, that a school formal is highly likely to take place. A Principal should know precisely how to use readily available resources to learn details of what’s taking place, and where exposures for problems will manifest. The department has equipped district superintendents with literature and resources for Principals to seek concerning these matters. What the department HAS NOT done, is make decisions for Principals. The decision rests only with the Principal about whether or not formals are on the agenda.

So, even knowing what’s happening, if a Principal says “NO” to a formal and makes certain that the school’s name is not mentioned anywhere connected with the event; surely this represents yet another fire-wall between trouble and the school, right? Wrong!

Again paraphrasing here but from senior partners of major international law firms that have run multiple year-long court cases concerning liability in school formals that have gone off the rails, this advice ensues. Under common law, if it can be reasonably well established that a significantly larger portion of the attendees of the formal have in common that they all attend the same school, that school can be identified as an invested party in whatever the courts are hearing. They automatically attract a liability exposure whether they like it or not.

Surveys have demonstrated that of all student committees that are denied permission for a formal by their Principals, 86% of those committees will go ahead and book a formal regardless. They will use the school’s name in the process and they will not realise or care about the potential repercussions. They’re focused on a different outcome.

Stats 2

If that statistic is already frightening, the next one will turn your head around. A survey of Sydney metropolitan school’s formal events over a three year period demonstrated that as many as 92% of those formals were in violation of state law, or were in one way or another non-compliant, therefore technically illegal, and as it follows, would be rendered insurance-void in the event of anything going wrong, thus placing a far higher potential liability exposure on the school.

This demonstrates that even the most well-meaning Principals without the correct information are ill-equipped to make this kind of decision.

So what’s the answer?


There’s only one logical choice but it’s a multiple-step process…

1/ Approve and take charge

If you’re out of the game, you can’t do anything positive or avoid anything negative.

If you’re holding the wheel, you can steer it the right way and control how this goes for everyone involved.

2/ Furnish yourself with all relevant information about what bases you’ll need to cover

You’ll want to see documents. Don’t panic about whether you’ll have to seek out and choose everything needed to get the event organised. Believe me there’s lots of people around you who are standing by to jump in and do the leg work. Use a year advisor / head of house / deputy or any staff member with good organisational skills. It doesn’t need to be someone who’s done this before, in fact a totally objective set of eyes on the options could be a positive thing.

There’s also the students. There will probably be a committee or an SRC group that would delight at the idea of doing the research and giving them some of these tasks will be a positive exercise in granting them some ownership over how their experience will go. It is after all, their night. Contacting all the commercial entities needed to put this together, and liaising with them will be a positive experience for the students.

When the paperwork comes in, have it presented to you and maybe even throw discussion open to several of your trusted staff to make some choices and weigh up the options.

The essential elements of a formal will include the following…

The Venue: (See also “Licensing & Associated Responsibilities” later posts)

There are many available but yours will need to be chosen based on several criteria…

  • Location, Capacity (maximum possible attendance heads),
  • Minimum attendance heads that they’d be willing to conduct the event for,
  • Price per head,
  • What catering options they offer,
  • Availability on dates that suit you,
  • Licenses, permits insurances,
  • Contract terms and conditions.

Things to watch out for…

You’ll want complete exclusivity to your function space, and things like toilets, outdoor areas, lounge areas and anywhere teenagers may potentially mingle with undesirable members of the public, or attendees from other events that may be taking place nearby. Your students may be provocatively dressed, or may be viewed as prime candidates for drug sellers when attending such events.

Anything the venue offers you, get in writing and read all the fine print. Venue packages are notorious for being aimed at teenagers and often what’s discussed to achieve a sale over the phone doesn’t manifest on the night unless it was promised in writing.

Don’t assume that because the venue is actively offering to conduct your formal, that they are properly licensed and certified to do it. Many venue licensees, who are the ones aware of what they are permitted and not permitted to sell, are NOT the ones doing the selling. Often details of licenses and permits concerning formals don’t filter down to the people on the phones. Make sure you you view copies of the venue licenses along with all conditions and appendixes.

Check the conditions of their insurances to make sure they’ll cover your type of event. Some won’t.