Handle with care

31st July 2009 at 01:00
Conker fights banned and swimming goggles ruled too dangerous? Treat health and safety headlines with caution, says Hannah Frankel. Illustrations by Kev Gahan

St Sidwells Primary School in Exeter, Devon, has "banned pupils from wearing swimming goggles". They get slippery when wet and the hard plastic can cause an injury. This groundbreaking news was announced in several national newspapers this summer and even made it into publications as far afield as Australia and Asia.

Naturally, a story like this wouldn't be complete without a soundbite from an outraged parent. Cue Tracy Brock, a mother from the school, exclaiming that it was "health and safety gone too far", and "if it carries on like this we'll be breeding a generation of namby pambies," to a reporter on a respected broadsheet.

The only thing is, St Sidwells has never banned goggles and has no plans to do so. Every year, a standard letter is sent to parents whose children are about to start a block of swimming lessons. It simply states, in line with long-standing guidance from the British Association of Advisors and Lecturers in Physical Education, that it prefers pupils not to wear goggles.

If parents feel strongly about protecting their children's eyes from chlorine or other chemicals in the water, the school asks them to speak to their teacher or send in a note. No parent has ever been refused, says Anne Hood, headteacher.

"No one has bothered to report the truth," she says. "Every paper and radio station has implied that our children aren't allowed to wear goggles, which simply isn't the case."

As well as it being a nod to health and safety, the request about goggles is more about common sense, she adds. The Year 3 and 6 pupils are only in the water for 25 minutes. If they are wearing goggles, they can spend most of the time fiddling with them as opposed to listening to their teacher. Beginners rarely put their head under water anyway, so goggles really aren't necessary.

"There's no story here," says Mrs Hood. "It's never been an issue before. It just shows the hunger for this sort of baseless news."

Last month, it was Stoke Damerel Primary School's turn to be thrust into the media spotlight when it was branded "The school that's banned bananas" in a Daily Mail headline. For two years, the Plymouth primary has asked pupils not to bring bananas into school because contact with them could cause one of its teachers to go into anaphylactic shock and die.

But grandparent Mary Williams remained unimpressed, branding the decision a "massive overreaction". She added: "Banning bananas because a member of staff - not even a pupil - is allergic is ridiculous." Presumably the unfortunate teacher, who was not available for comment, thinks differently.

You can't help but read them, but newspapers thrive on stories that lambast schools for "wrapping pupils in cotton wool". Take the south London school that "bans games" in the playground (The Sun, September 2008). In fact, the rule only applied to the 15 minutes before school when parents and babies were forced to dodge flying balls.

Then there was a school in Tyne and Wear, ridiculed for "banning the sack race and three-legged event" following a risk assessment (Daily Star, July 2008). A teacher insisted they had too many events on already.

But the piece de resistance is the "bonkers conkers" ban which goes all the way back to October 2004. "It's one of the oldest chestnuts around," says the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which has compiled an online "Myth of the month" calendar to highlight misleading stories.

The legend was born when a Carlisle headteacher decided pupils should wear safety goggles to play conkers. Subsequently, some schools decided to ban conkers or only allow the game if children wear goggles or even padded gloves.

"Realistically the risk from playing conkers is incredibly low," the HSE says. "If pupils deliberately hit each other over the head with conkers, that's a discipline issue, not health and safety."

Like many schools contacted by TES Magazine, the Carlisle school was unwilling to discuss the incident, lest it triggers another wave of unwelcome media interest. "I just want to put the conkers behind us now," the new headteacher said. His reticence is understandable; the infamous ban has been cited in 158 articles since it was introduced.

Faced with this barrage of "nanny-state" stories, school staff increasingly associate safety precautions with bureaucratic red tape. More than 44 per cent of teachers and support workers believe that excessive health and safety regulations have had an adverse impact on pupils' education, according to a survey by Teachers TV last month.

And 46.5 per cent claim that the regulations have restricted pupils' personal growth. The same number say that their own jobs have been made more difficult by these rules.

Among the things they take issue with are a five-page briefing on the dangers of Pritt Stick and the use of goggles to protect eyes while using Blu-Tack. Others objected to rules against running in the playground or snowball fights in winter.

One anonymous teacher says that a lot of the risk assessments she has to carry out are time-consuming and petty. "As a head of year I was asked to assess the risk of taking six tutor groups from their form rooms to assemble in the hall," she says.

"I had to look out for every possible accident hot spot. The paperwork for doing anything at all with a tutor group or year group became horrendous."

Judith Hackitt, chair of the HSE, is sympathetic to teachers who are coerced into taking lengthy, superfluous precautions, but adamantly denies the executive is responsible.

"Very few of these rules and procedures we hear about are actual health and safety regulations," she says. "We're told risk assessments are too burdensome by teachers, when the legal requirements are straightforward."

Additional information is usually at the request of other parties - either the employer (normally the local education authority or chair of governors), over-zealous insurers or consultants.

"These long winded risk assessments aren't necessary," says Mrs Hackitt. "You end up just putting `not applicable' over most of them. They shouldn't cover every eventuality; they should be fit for purpose." So, in a bid to encourage more risk taking, Mrs Hackitt set fire to her hands and a video of her experiment is still available on the video sharing website YouTube. She hopes it will convince science teachers to conduct more adventurous practical experiments in class.

Even Ofsted has warned that concerns over health and safety are preventing teachers from doing practical experiments. But a lot of their anxiety is caused by "hearsay and myth", says Phil Bunyan from CLEAPSS, an advisory body that promotes practical science teaching. "There is a perception of health and safety being used as a dampener in science, but I can hardly think of any activities that you used to be able to do that you can't do now," he says.

Some substances are simply no longer available. White phosphorus is only made in China and impossible to get hold of, while benzene is banned because it is a class one carcinogen.

In 2005, a report called Surely That's Banned? exposed a number of myths and misunderstandings about presumably banned chemicals and procedures in science lessons. It found that some teaching is "inhibited by unjustified concerns about health and safety".

Mrs Hackitt "can't stress enough" how important it is for pupils to experience risk in and out of the classroom. "If they don't experience it now, they're actually more likely to come to harm in later life because they won't have the tools for dealing with risk," she says.

But her argument is unlikely to convince some newspaper columnists, especially those that have forged a career out of "health and safety gone mad" stories. The Daily Mail's Richard Littlejohn, for example, is constantly berating the "elf `n' safety nazis", as he calls them.

"I find it deeply offensive," says Mrs Hackitt. "I recognise they're pointing the finger at bureaucrats who hide behind health and safety as an excuse, but that's exactly what it is: an excuse.

"The more commentators make a fuss about how cynical health and safety measures are, the more likely it is that people will be hurt because they won't take necessary precautions."

In 2007-08, slips and trips caused 60 per cent of serious accidents to people working in education at a cost of Pounds 48.6 million, the HSE says. And in the past six years there have been five deaths and more than three thousand injuries in the education sector due to falling from height, such as stairs or chairs.

The NASUWT teaching union helped its members receive more than Pounds 9 million compensation in personal injury claims last year. Shelves fell on one teacher. Another got an electric shock from bare wires under his work surface, leaving him with long-term mental health problems.

"People constantly complain that there is too much bureaucracy in health and safety, but it's an entirely hollow argument," says Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT. "It should be just as important as other procedures, such as child protection."

Some critics argue the NASUWT has taken this safety message too far with regard to school trips. It urges its members to "consider very carefully" before going on educational visits, in case they are blamed should anything go wrong.

But tragedies are rare, and when they do occur, they cause ripples of anxiety for years to come. The Lyme Bay canoeing accident, when four sixth formers died in 1993, was one of the worst. There was also the horrendous minibus accident on the M40 (also in 1993) which killed 12 children and their teacher.

The Macmillan Academy in Middlesbrough has learnt lessons from these tragedies, but still believes in the benefits of trips. It is the only school in the UK with a specialism in outdoor learning, complete with its own outdoor centre and the largest school climbing wall in the country. As well as an extensive range of after-school clubs, every pupil in key stage 3 is entitled to a two day course in critical outdoor learning skills each year.

Year 7s have the option of a residential trip, while Years 8 and 9 can take part in everything from ski trips to scuba diving or the Three Peaks Challenge - a climb of the UK's highest mountains over 24 hours.

"We'll jump through hoops to enable visits to happen," says David Exeter, an ex-outward bound instructor who is now the academy's director of outdoor learning. "If a teacher wants to do a trip, our first reaction is, `Yes, let's assess the risks', not `No, it's too difficult'," he says.

The senior management team has to be behind it, Mr Exeter adds. The academy has a culture of assessing risks on a daily basis, as opposed to doing the minimum legal requirements. But he tries to make those everyday assessments as stress-free as possible. He provides generic risk assessments that act as an easy template for teachers, before they complete a more site-specific assessment.

But however careful schools are, there is still a very real fear of being sued by litigious parents, says Colin Smith, the educational visits co- ordinator (EVC) at Turves Green Girls' School and Technology College in Birmingham, which organises about 50 trips a year.

"Staff are nervous about getting into hot water should something go wrong," he says, "but we feel secure that we have taken every reasonable step to ensure everyone's safety."

In fact, if a pupil is hurt, a teacher is very unlikely to be sued. The main legal duties lie with the employer, not the teacher or even the headteacher, unless they own the school, says the HSE.

It can't find a single instance in the past five years of a teacher being personally sued for compensation. A handful of teachers have been prosecuted following very serious incidents, but only where they failed to follow direct instructions or didn't display common sense. But it's these few extreme cases that stick in the mind. "Papers aren't sold on the back of good news, they are sold when they alarm us," says Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist and author. "Problems and accidents are reported over and above examples of normal everyday living."

Although teachers are concerned about being sued by parents, parents usually campaign for fewer safety nets, not more. "When they don't feel threatened, parents will want a more human response to activities that centres on common sense," she says.

Ironically, it is parents rather than teachers who are neglecting their duty to children, adds Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhoods and 21st Century Boys. "In this consumer driven society, parents are giving their children loads of expensive stuff as opposed to the time, attention and care they really need to become resilient and socially competent," she says.

Behind the headlines, schools simply have to find the right balance between care and freedom. Cockshut Hill Technology College in Yardley, Birmingham, replaced hard footballs with soft sponge balls a couple of years ago as a health and safety precaution. There were no complaints from the parents, and the pupils have got used to them too.

It takes safety seriously, but it never lets that get in the way. "If (a school trip) is valid and it's been risk-assessed and costed, we'll go," says Pete Glasswell, the college's work experience co-ordinator.

"If you don't follow the rules, you're going to have a problem. But if you have the paper trail to prove you've crossed all the Ts and dotted all the Is, you can't be blamed if a genuine accident does occur."

The college was also a pilot school for the British Safety Council's (BSC) entry level award in workplace hazards, which aims to minimise the number of workplace accidents among young people. Half of the UK's annual 300,000 serious workplace injuries involve 16-24 year olds; one every 40 minutes.

"Health and safety is seen as a restrictor by young people, whereas we argue it's an enabler," says Brian Nimick, chief executive of the BSC. "Over-zealous officials who are afraid of legal consequences are distracting people from the real story: 180 people went to work last year and didn't come home."

These facts are unlikely to stop papers running stories about "safety killjoys" running amok, and taking pot shots at well-intentioned health and safety measures.

As one anonymous teacher remembers: "We appeared in the local press once after a teacher yelled at a kid for charging past her in the yard and spilling her coffee. Cue the headline: `Child reprimanded for running in playground'." To use another stock tabloid catchphrase: You couldn't make it up

www.lotc.org.uk, www.britsafe.org


- Having to wear goggles to put up posters

- Five-page briefing on the dangers of Pritt Stick

- Ban on running in the playground

- Wet grass stopping PE lessons

- Ban on playing with conkers

- One person at a time in staff kitchen

- Ban on sweets because of choking risk

- Buoyancy aids for capable year 11 swimmers

Source: TeachersTV survey, June 2009


Pancakes races are banned by HSE

Not true, although a short risk assessment or review of the previous assessment is a good idea.

Teachers can't put plasters on children's cuts

Not true. If a pupil is allergic to normal plasters, use hypo-allergenic ones. It's more important to keep cuts clean and covered to prevent infection.

Egg boxes banned in craft lessons

Not true. This story started after a school briefly banned children from using cardboard egg boxes due to a perceived risk of salmonella. As long as egg boxes and toilet roll tubes look clean, there's no reason not to use them.

Source: www.hse.gov.ukmyth

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