No thaw on attitudes to risk

IT WAS a week of heavy flurries. In some parts of central London, depths were reported to have reached 10cm. We are of course talking about the heaps of agitated letters that arrived on the doorstep of The Daily Telegraph after some of the heaviest snowfall in years caused hundreds of schools to close across the country.

"How many of these schools will also be taking their pupils on skiing trips?" barked one reader, enraged that a mere snowfall could excuse such epic shirking. "If there was a repeat of the winter of 1962-63, would schools close for six weeks?" harrumphed another.

In the columns too, the mittens were off. "What next - no school when it rains?" demanded Simon Heffer in the Telegraph. "I suspect a lot of this is down to the teachers who fancy a day off," grumbled the Sunday Mirror's Richard Stott.

OK, so there were a couple of teachers on the TES webforum posting, "Yippee! No school today!" and "Woohoo! It's shut!"

But, in reality, the closures were not down to skiving but health and safety laws. Whatever you think of them, many schools live in fear of their repercussions.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teachers' union, said: "These days you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. If schools take action, they are accused of overreacting. If they don't, and there's an accident, they have to spend weeks responding to legal letters from parents."

School safety precautions have tightened over the past few years as fears over the uses and abuses of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act have increased.

Last month a teacher was found guilty of unacceptable professional conduct after, among other things, letting pupils on a picnic use steps to a beach that had not been risk assessed. And in 2003, Paul Ellis, a Lancashire geography teacher, was jailed when a pupil died on a trip.

The backlash has already begun with a campaign to reinvigorate outdoor education. But unless the Government bulks up the outdoor learning manifesto it announced in November to guarantee greater indemnification for schools and teachers, as the NASUWT hopes, it looks unlikely there will be any thaw in teachers' frosty attitude to rough-and-tumble.

Indeed, holiday firms have warned that plans for a new national safety standard to protect children on foreign trips will discourage teachers from booking excursions altogether. And for Telegraph reader Mike Dance of east Sussex, it seems unlikely there will be a return to the days of the playground ice slide. ("No one was hurt, save for our headmaster who broke a collar bone.") But Dai Hudd, assistant general secretary of the Prospect union, whose members include 8,000 inspectors and safety regulators, said teachers had less to fear than they thought.

"In reality it is about common sense," he said. "It is not about catching teachers out. Risk assessments are just to show you've considered potential risks, not that you've obliterated them."

Even last-minute changed plans could be dealt with by simply annotating a risk assessment form, said Mr Hudd.

"What is clear is that there is a total lack of training for teachers and heads," he added.

Frosty about snow, page 27

What the health and safety laws dictate

Employees must:

* Take reasonable care of their own and others' health and safety.

* Co-operate with their employers.

* Carry out activities in accordance with training and instructions.

* Inform the employer of any serious risks.

If employees follow these steps, ultimate liability lies with the school.

And risk assessment can be altered on the day to recognise changing circumstances, advises the Prospect union.

Source: The 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act and the 1999 Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations.

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