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Always looking for the hazards of school life

Virginia Purchon reports on a London primary's impressive list of health and safety measures. Feminine hygiene may seem an unlikely subject for the health and safety committee of a primary school to discuss, but at Hampton Hill they need to. Some girls start menstruating in Year 4, according to Bill Jerman, headteacher of this popular suburban school in the London borough of Richmond.

Most published literature is unsuitable for nine-year olds, he says, so they are producing their own leaflet aimed at both the girls and their parents - as some expect their daughters to get all their sex education at secondary school.

This leaflet is only one of a whole list of health and safety measures, which include first aid training for all staff and school journey guidelines ready for a Year 6 trip to the Isle of Wight in October.

Recommended by the local inspector as an example of good practice, there is evidence that a "sustained commitment and interest from the top" - the prerequisite of successful health and safety management mentioned by the Health and Safety Executive's education service advisory committee in its recently-published Managing Health and Safety in Schools - exists in this school.

The governors have allocated Pounds 1,000 annually to it and it is a regular agenda item at their meetings. And there is added help from two governors with expertise in this area, one of whom writes for the Consumers' Association .

A victim of its own success, however, the school is having to accommodate increasing numbers of pupils - and overcrowding can lead to accidents and more risk of passing on infections. Nevertheless, Bill Jerman felt he had health and safety well under control when he opened the school's doors to a borough training course on risk assessment in manual handling which he and the caretaker attended.

It was an enlightening experience. His eyes were opened when other people looked at his space problems and saw the hazards. Besides lack of space for moving around in the classrooms, he discovered the photocopy paper was stored so high even he could not reach it without risking spinal damage in getting it down.

To deal with classroom overcrowding, the school got rid of serviceable tables and gave the children desks. It was an expensive exercise, but the classrooms are roomier now that the trays of work which lined the walls have been removed.

There was a spin-off too. The children like using a desk because it gives them a "home base" to keep their belongings in.

As well as reorganising the classroom furniture, the school built new cupboards into the roof. They open on to a small gallery reached by wooden stairs - making an imaginative classroom extension.

Top quality, wall-to-wall carpet squares on the upper corridors has had a "calming effect on the children". He wants carpets on the ground floor too, but the problem of dirt has to be solved first.

It was helpful that money was available for these changes, but what can expanding primary schools do if the money is not in the kitty? Clearly, carpets get axed. Classrooms bursting at the seams also means more parents arriving at home time - at Hampton Hill the school gates had to be widened to minimise the crush. Traffic calming, though, is a borough responsibility.

Looking for hazards at all levels on a regular basis, and managing resources so that risks are minimised is something else the HSE booklet advises. At Hampton Hill the caretaker does a daily site survey and logs his findings in the health and safety book, noting such things as trailing fence wire. Once a term, he and Bill Jerman do a formal inspection of the school premises.

The playground needed attention when the school first took control of its budget- a spate of minor accidents, including children tripping in the potholes meant the surface needed renewing.

Meanwhile, the well-kept premises reflect the rolling three-year programme of redecoration but, like almost every school, there is the unexciting prospect of mending the leaky roof some day.

Buildings and equipment are not the only areas of health and safety where forward planning is expected. Another important component of any plan is to create a "safety culture" amongst staff and pupils.

The education service advisory committee on health and safety(ESAC) says all employees must have adequate health and safety training. Bill Jerman would like this to happen at Hampton Hill, for he is not convinced that the cascade model - training one staff member to train all the rest - is adequate. But how does a school provide the time?

As for the children, Bill Jerman believes that they should learn to be responsible for their own actions and that parents have a role here, which is why his health and safety committee is working on a school behaviourpolicy.

There are areas of the curriculum where safety is important, such as technology and physical education. "Children need to learn how to use tools, " he said. "The onus is on us to train them properly."

Something already in place is the checklist teachers must sign each half term. This confirms that children know and can follow rules of safe behaviour - simple things, like keeping left in corridors and being careful with scissors.

Signing the list implies also they themselves remember safety policy and procedures too and know of any special medical conditions in their class. But the list is no help for supply teachers and students, since it does not spell out the safety procedures themselves. A key list outlining the school's policy and practice in health and safety is needed.

With his policy in its four ring-binders only in place since last October, Bill Jerman is well aware that there is always something to be done.

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