Heads vulnerable over health and safety pitfalls

26th September 2008 at 01:00
As one school leader appears in court this week, heads are urged to brush up on their knowledge of their legal responsibilities

Some headteachers are under so much pressure to improve exam results and juggle budgets that they may be compromising health and safety regulations in their school buildings, the National Governors' Association (NGA) has said.

Phil Revell, the chief executive, feared that "more than a tiny minority" were breaking the law to save money or because they were distracted by political pressures.

"Heads can be sacked if pupils don't make the grades. All the pressure is to meet the curriculum standards, and that takes heads' eyes off management of buildings," he said.

His concerns were echoed by Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, who said heads in small primaries were increasingly vulnerable due to the weight of the law.

"A lot of people are being driven mad by health and safety legislation, and the consequence is extreme overload and the risk of missing something important," he said.

"Shrinking budgets mean there are plenty of heads taking this on themselves and having to choose between having a health and safety survey or keeping a teacher.

"Under the workforce agreement, no headteacher should have to take on this responsibility, but they cannot necessarily afford otherwise."

Some schools were clubbing together to share a business manager to deal with the health and safety legislation maze, he said, but this was by no means the rule.

Many secondaries, embracing the concept of "distributed leadership", delegate health and safety matters to a bursar or similar, but the head is still ultimately responsible.

The NGA's comments came as David Dibb, head of Westonzoyland Primary in Somerset, appeared in court accused of failing to employ a licensed company to remove asbestos from his school. It is believed to be only the second time an individual head has been taken to court by the Health and Safety Executive over asbestos.

In 2006, Phil Robinson, head of Silverhill Primary in Derby, was cleared of any wrongdoing after asbestos was disturbed during works to the building, but Derby city council was fined Pounds 50,000.

Although cases of heads being taken to court are rare, experts say vagueness in the law leaves heads open to prosecution. Richard Bird, legal advisor to the Association of School and College Leaders, and who was a secondary head for 21 years, said the duty of care to visitors, employees and pupils came down to the "owner, occupier or manager" of the premises. In other words, the head and local authority, and potentially the governors, could be found liable if a visitor fell down a hole in the playground or slipped on a wet floor.

As the number of foundation, trust and academy schools rises, more heads and governors could be left prone to prosecution because they do not have the local authority to fall back on.

Mr Bird explained that the pitfalls are many, from making sure asbestos is dealt with properly, to preventing an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in the PE changing rooms.

"Schools are even responsible for ensuring trespassers are protected," he said. In 1999, Knowsley council had to pay Pounds 17,500 to a youth who fell 20 feet after a school skylight he was stamping on gave way.

"But one of the main areas for heads to be aware of is fire safety, as they are personally responsible for breaches," Mr Bird said.

"There are so many things happening around school that the head needs to be aware of. For example, caretakers propping open fire doors.

"Making sure the regulations are followed, drills are carried out and doors are not blocked - all come down to the head."

Mr Bird said it was very easy for health and safety issues to "fall by the wayside" and advised that heads routinely employ experts from either the local authority or a local contractor to carry out inspections.

Simon Longbottom, head of the Health and Safety Executive's education sector team, said: "Increasing local management of schools means that some heads take on additional responsibilities for building maintenance and construction. Heads need to ensure there is a competent project manager and close liaison with contractors so that additional risks to staff and pupils are properly controlled."



Common law duties

Duties of care to employees; this includes stress as well as safe working

Duties of care to visitors

Protecting parents and children from hazards

Unlawful visitors (trespassers) must also not be put at risk, though the duty of care is less demanding

Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006

Investigate whether asbestos is on the premises

Carry out a written risk assessment

Prepare and implement a risk management system

Provide anyone working on the premises with information on the location of asbestos

Work with asbestos may only be carried out by licensed operators

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005

Managers, as well as the occupiers and owners of premises, are personally liable for any breach of fire regulations, such as obstruction of fire escape routes

Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (2002)

Covers hazardous substances from bleach to radiation

Substances must be recorded and detailed risk assessments made

Safety procedures must be laid down and enforced

The Health and Safety Executive continuously updates advice on substances and should be checked

Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and subsequent regulations

Assess risks

Ensure first aid and medical care are arranged (plus contacts with external services)

Record health and safety arrangements

Employ competent people

Arrange safety of contractors on site

Provide safety training as part of induction

Keep records of compliance with the regulations

In doing so, work with statutory union health and safety representatives

Complete accident forms

The working environment

Must be safe (includes non-slip floors)

Must be ventilated, safely lit and work spaces be of adequate size

Must have rest facilities

Good housekeeping; for example, any spillage must be mopped up promptly

There must be emergency procedures, such as in case of fire


Operating hazards must be identified

Appropriate guards must be provided

Induction must include safe operation

Richard Bird legal adviser to the ASCL.


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today