Health and safety boss urges schools to take more risks

19th March 2010 at 00:00
She blames media for encouraging misplaced fear of trips and science practicals

Around half of the nation's schools are still wary of taking trips and undertaking science practicals and other potentially risky activities because of misplaced fears over bureaucracy and litigation, the head of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has said.

Chair Judith Hackitt revealed that up to 50 per cent of schools perceived it as "difficult" to arrange activities or had curbed them "to an extent we think is a pity".

In an interview with The TES, she said the misperception that taking trips was "hard" or legally risky had crept into school culture because of media reports of exceptional tragic incidents.

"The general risk aversion and propensity to look for others to blame is bound to have an effect on teachers, if parents have unrealistic expectations of what teachers can reasonably do," she said.

"I have no doubt there's a culture that taking a trip is hard, but it's not as complicated as they think it is. I'm not unsympathetic, and we want to help make things easier."

She said that in some local authorities the sheer weight of bureaucracy could be off-putting.

"Sometimes you can have a generic risk assessment form that is up to 40 pages long, covering every situation, even if the teacher is taking the children for a walk around the park."

She stressed that taking risks was an important part of children's education, and parents needed to be made aware, through face-to-face consultation, of what the school could and could not protect them against.

"Part of the deal is the children themselves behaving responsibly," she said.

Ms Hackitt spoke out as the Department for Children, Schools and Families finalised details of a new set of simplified guidelines for staff organising outings.

Health and Safety for Learners Outside the Classroom, which also provides checklist templates for risk assessments, have been designed to put an end to overly elaborate local authority forms.

The new guidance will replace four sets of health and safety documents currently used by schools.

Ms Hackitt said: "This tries to put it all in one place and is written in a way that people shouldn't be overwhelmed. It's saying it is pretty simple when you look at it."

John Morgan, president of the Association of School and College Leaders, welcomed the move but said the tide was "already beginning to turn".

He said: "It has been a bad decade for health and safety, over and above common sense. But people are beginning to see how we have been over-protective towards our children and have been doing them a disservice in the long-run."

Ms Hackitt's comments come just weeks after headteachers' leaders told the Commons children's select committee that the cost of implementing "rarely cover" legislation to protect teachers' non-contact time was reducing the number of school trips.

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