Caught between a rock and a hard place
The burden of health and safety rules is one of the great cliches about England's schools. "Something must be done," commentators can regularly be relied upon to observe.
Now something is being done - but with potentially lethal consequences. Changes in the pipeline could see local authorities relieved of their liability for health and safety, with the onus handed to school governors. The problem is that this would include liability for asbestos, a still-common and deadly material that was used in the construction of schools until the 1980s.
Ministers say their plans are part of wider proposals to rein in an "excessive health and safety culture", but some campaigners have warned that the reforms could put more school communities at risk of deadly exposure to the now-illegal substance.
They also argue that this could become an "intolerable burden" for school governors. Indeed, teaching unions have called on the Department for Education to abandon the policy.
The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) says governors do not have the knowledge or resources to help heads safely maintain asbestos in schools. It is also concerned that the responsibility could deter people from becoming school governors.
Julie Winn, chair of the JUAC, said she feared the changes would "put more staff and pupils at risk of potentially deadly exposure to asbestos". "Governors freely volunteer their time and expertise to support schools, but this is a step too far," she said. "It is hard to envisage how governors will cope with this additional responsibility with the limited time and resources available to them."
The JUAC estimates that 75 per cent of UK schools contain asbestos. The country also has the highest incidence of deaths caused by mesothelioma - a form of cancer linked to asbestos exposure - in the world.
Michael Lees, founder of the Asbestos in Schools (AIS) group, said that the changes would "inevitably put staff and pupils at risk" and place an unmanageable burden on governors. "They are unlikely to realise, at first, the legal and financial implications of taking on this duty, and in many cases they will also take it on without knowing the extent to which asbestos is in the school," he added. "This means they could be left in the future with an enormous bill that is totally unexpected."
Announcing the reforms just before Christmas, schools minister Nick Gibb said the DfE was "determined to reduce or amend health and safety law as it applies to schools to enable schools to take a proportionate and common-sense approach to school activities".
"For all schools where the local authority is currently responsible for health and safety, this would mean that they would gain the discretion and freedom already enjoyed by academy trusts, foundation, voluntary-aided and free schools," he said.
But the prospect of changing the rules around asbestos has proven almost as politically toxic as the substance itself.
"While this would be a further devolution of powers to schools, it is unlikely that governing bodies would welcome such a change as a positive freedom or a reduction of red tape, but see it more as a transfer of responsibility," said Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governors' Association.
"This increased responsibility would need to be backed by funding for the increased insurance costs and access to finances to rectify structural problems currently managed by local authorities - for example, dealing with the discovery of hazardous asbestos in school buildings."
It would seem that taking responsibility for such a discovery - and the potentially vast financial and health implications - in return for a reduction in red tape is a cost that most school governors will not be prepared to pay.
STATISTICS ON SAFETY
104 pupils have been injured on school trips in the past two years - 51 pupils were hurt during 2009-10 and 53 in 2010-11
55 injuries happened during activities in swimming pools (2009-11)
27 children were hurt doing 'adventure, activity and education field studies' (2009-11)
Source: Health and Safety Executive.