Who's responsible for kids?

When Victor Nonis picked up an enrolment form for his eight-year-old son from the PCF Nanyang Student Care Centre in Jurong West, he was shocked by a clause.

It excluded the centre's teachers from responsibility for injury resulting from their negligence.

"I felt that it was unfair. I understand that the centre has to protect itself, but to whose benefit?" said the self-employed 54-year-old father.

"These kids are still young and they can't look after themselves. The centre should be responsible for the safety of the children."

The form has been used at the centre in Jurong West Street 91 since it began operations in 1998. It has 50 students.

"We are reviewing the form with the view of doing away with that clause," said a PCF spokesman.

A check with a dozen other student care operators showed that such an exclusion clause was rare. But it is still sometimes used for outdoor activities, such as excursions.

"Our centres do not have such a clause and we do not believe in excluding ourselves and external parties we engage from such responsibilities," said Yau Sow Shan, a divisional manager with QSF The Enablers, which runs seven student care centres. "The safety of students comes first."

Nascans managing director Seah Wee Khee, whose 10 school-based centres do not have such a clause, said: "When parents entrust their child to you for their daily academic and character development, they also entrust their child's safety to you.

"Such a clause will be useful and reasonable only if the accident is caused by the child's own actions, beyond reasonable care by the centre staff."

But lawyers here say such negligence exemptions have no or limited legal effect.

Under section 2(1) of the Unfair Contract Terms Act, a party "cannot exclude or restrict liability for death or personal injury resulting from negligence by relying on such a term or notice".

"Such clauses will not carry weight," said Gloria James, a lawyer with Gloria James-Civetta & Co.

Lawyer Amolat Singh from law firm Amolat and Partners noted that indemnity forms are no different. "They have no legal effect and only give cold comfort to those seeking refuge behind such legalistic sounding terms and sentences."

According to guidelines provided by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), it is a care centre's responsibility to provide a safe environment.

"Centres may have different administrative policies and contractual terms between them and parents," said an MSF spokesman, adding that it has raised the concern to PCF. "Our ministry will look into feedback or complaints and we may conduct investigations if necessary."

Several parents The Straits Times spoke to said student care centres should not run away from their primary responsibility - to care for their students.

"The children are young and they may hurt themselves," said Lee Cher Ching, who has two sons attending a school-based centre. "Such a clause makes us parents feel uncomfortable."

Mr Nonis decided to send his son to Brilliant Student Care Centre, which is also situated near his Jurong West home. It also has a similar exclusion form.

"I like the centre's programme - it offers tuition for all subjects," he said.


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