In the event of fire, push really hard

8th February 2008 at 00:00
When teachers at Marsh Hill Primary send their pupils to the toilet, they go in pairs - not for security or even companionship, but because the fire doors are so heavy it takes four little hands to open them.

The doors at the Birmingham school illustrate the dilemmas that can face schools trying to meet today's health and safety standards.

Ministers this week published new plans to ensure that young people are safe, while calling on schools and parents to ensure that children were not "wrapped up in cotton wool". But headteachers have said they are torn between complying with health and safety regulations and providing pupils with a good learning environment.

Cate Ball, head of Marsh Hill, said it was difficult to strike a balance: "It's about common sense versus bureaucratic paperwork."

When Ofsted inspectors visited her school, they were so concerned about the weight of the fire doors that they measured the force required to open them. But the doors must remain, despite the difficulties they can cause when small children have "little emergencies" and the problems they could create for younger pupils if there were a fire.

The Government's Staying Safe Action Plan, published this week, should make it easier for teachers to organise school trips. It suggests awarding venues such as museums and field study centres with "quality badges" proving they manage safety effectively, so teachers do not have to draw up endless risk assessments.

A series of highly publicised deaths on school trips and the threat of legal action have made school trips an increasingly unattractive prospect for teachers. But Ed Balls, the Children, Schools and Families secretary, said: "We should not let a fear of a compensation culture prevent pupils from learning outside the classroom."

At Marsh Hill, Mrs Ball has been unable to arrange any overseas trips for her pupils because she could not find anyone to prepare the necessarily complex risk assessment.

"And if there's ice or snow in the playground, we can't even let the children out to play," she said. "One of them might get injured and the parents might sue."

This week, health and safety bureaucracy prevented children from holding an annual pancake race on roads in Ripon, Yorkshire. Instead, it was held on the playing fields of Ripon Cathedral Choir School.

Other measures in the Government's plan include a review of safety education materials for personal, social and health education, and new guidance on protecting children with disabilities or special educational needs from bullying. The Government is also introducing public targets for improving child safety, which will include pupil surveys to measure bullying in different local authorities.

John Bangs, education officer for the National Union of Teachers, said the surveys would "fail to deal with the actuality of bullying", and that it would be better to ensure heads introduced robust systems for reporting bullying within schools.

- Staying Safe Action Plan is at http:

School building hold-ups

The Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, to refurbish and rebuild every secondary school in England by 2020, has slipped further behind schedule.

Jim Knight, schools minister, said this week that 35 schools were due to open in 2008-9, 15 fewer than predicted last October. By now, 100 were supposed to have opened, but just two have been completed.

Mr Knight said the pace of delivery should return to previous estimates for 2009-10, when he expects 115 schools to be finished.

The latest setbacks came to light on the day that Partnerships for Schools, responsible for delivering BSF, published a review to speed up the consultation and design process.

The review, by consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers, calculated that pound;250 million could be shaved off the estimated budget of pound;45bn.

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