Friday, 17 December 2010

School health and safety policies

Following a government review, schools are being encouraged to reappraise their approach to health and safety in the face of growing concerns that children are being denied educational opportunities by the modern safety culture and teachers’ fears of legal action being taken against them if things go wrong.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, referred to businesses being 'drowned in red tape, confusion and the fear of being sued for even minor accidents' and commissioned Lord Young to carry out a review to 'put some common sense back into health and safety'.

When the report of that review, Common Sense, Common Safety, was published in October it attacked the 'compensation culture', which Lord Young said he believed was 'at the heart of the problems that so beset health and safety today'. He blamed lawyers working under 'no win, no fee' agreements for giving too many accident victims the impression that they may be 'entitled to handsome rewards just for making a claim regardless of any personal responsibility'.

Fear of litigation, compounded by the 'overzealous approach' of some health and safety consultants was leading to a goal of eliminating all risk from the workplace instead of setting out the 'rational, proportionate approach that the Health and Safety at Work Act demands', he argued. Lord Young added that this was a fear 'that not only blights the workplace but almost every walk of life – from schools and fetes, to voluntary work and everyday sports and cultural activities'.

His report concluded that: 'This disproportionate approach has also had a negative impact on education in this country and has decreased the number of opportunities available to children to experience risk in a controlled environment, especially through school trips and competitive sport. My proposals aim to ease the administrative burden on teachers that the current health and safety regime has brought about to ensure that children do not miss out on important experiences'.

Lord Young's conclusions about schools echoed the more detailed findings of a report published earlier this year by a coalition of safety organisations. After visiting 11 schools in England, researchers for the Child Safety Education Coalition reported that schools have a strong commitment to the aims of keeping pupils safe and helping them to learn how to adopt safe practices, but found there was some concern among school staff about repercussions should things go wrong during practical activities and that this can limit pupils' opportunities.

In their report, Learning to Adopt Safe Practices, the researchers found that many schools are constrained by assuming that parents expect the school environment and school activities to be as safe as possible. They added that: 'In secondary schools, senior staff and governors are mindful of high profile instances where serious mishaps with practical activities in school or on trips have led to severe recrimination.' The report said that while school leaders recognise the importance of safety education and practical opportunities to learn about risks, they are also aware of the damaging consequences such a mishap could have for their school and often feel obliged to attach yet higher priority to keeping pupils 100% safe while in school or under the supervision of school staff.

Schools are aware of this dilemma. One vice-chair of governors told the researchers: 'We may be going over the top with health and safety in this country', and went on to say that many activities that were common practice in schools, and that provided worthwhile learning, are not now being done because teachers are concerned about repercussions should things go wrong.

The report praised governors for taking their duty of care seriously, particularly with the issues relating to the health and safety of buildings. It described how they ‘generally delegate responsibility appropriately to the headteacher and largely assume that a correct professional line will be taken, but expect to be consulted on new initiatives that have safety and welfare implications, such as trips that include an overnight stay’.

Lord Young has also proposed separating out 'low hazard environments' including shops and classrooms for a simpler process of written risk assessment than other work premises. He suggested that this could be achieved by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) 'providing simple advice promoted through targeted communications and a downloadable checklist for risk assessments'.

The HSE has already developed an on-line classroom risk assessment tool, which it says should take around 20 minutes to complete. It is seeking views on how the tool functions and how it compares to existing guidance on risk assessment until February 4.

HSE Classroom risk assessment can be found at:

As explained in A Guide to the Law for School Governors, under the Act, responsibility for the health and safety of pupils, staff and visitors lies with the governing body of the school, either as the employer of school staff or because it controls school premises (or both). Governing bodies must take all reasonable measures to ensure that the premises, and equipment on the premises, are safe and do not put the health of pupils at risk while they are there.

Schools must have a health and safety policy and governing bodies of community and voluntary controlled schools have to use the one provided by their local authority. The relevant powers and responsibilities of governors and local authorities are outlined in the government's 2001 document Health and safety: responsibilities and powers, which also includes a list of key elements of a health and safety policy. It can be downloaded from:

Governors looking for guidance on school trips will find that useful information and advice continues to be available on the Learning Outside The Classroom website at

Common Sense Common Safety is available from:

Learning to Adopt Safe Practices can be downloaded from

Written by David Gordon of School Governor Update

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