Schools and local authorities have a legal duty to care for the health and safety of staff, pupils and visitors. To this end, they are required by law to assess and control any perceived risks. School staff are expected to assist them, both in school or on authorised school activities out of school.
There are three types of risk assessments: generic, specific and continuing. Generic risks will be identified and assessed at management level. For example, the school will determine the risks associated with educational visits. Specific risk assessments will be made by the staff closest to them for example, a specific visit to a museum with a specific year group, with specific leaders. Continuing risk assessments will be done as circumstances change for example, when torrential rain causes a small stream to become a raging torrent.
Once a risk has been identified, a school must then do whatever is "reasonably practicable" to minimise the risk. It is left to judges to decide ultimately what is "reasonable" and "practicable". Court cases have shown that if a teacher takes an approach that is within a range of responses that could be expected of an ordinary teacher, then this will suffice. Heads and teachers should not have a problem with this. They assess risks in schools instinctively. That is why schools are safe places.
In managing a risk, there are three things to consider: can I control it by supervision, protection or training, or by a combination of all three? Having decided what to do, make sure it happens. Wherever possible, put the assessment down in writing.
The Health and Safety Executive has raised schools' awareness of the importance of risk assessment. It has now attempted to rein in the more absurd manifestations of health and safety culture by introducing the notion of "sensible risk management" in its latest issue of Five steps to Risk Assessment. For more information from the HSE, see www.hse.gov.uk
Former headteacher and legal specialist