New regulations from Brussels mean that every school now needs a risk-assessment strategy. Such an exercise can bring great benefit to all areas of the school as well as highlighting the problem zones.
Serious accidents to schoolchildren and teachers are rare. But when deaths result they make the headlines: the four pupils drowned with their canoeing instructor at Lyme Bay in 1993; in the same year, the 12 pupils and their teacher from Hagley School in the West Midlands killed in the school minibus when it crashed on its return journey after a theatre outing to London . More recently the stabbing of Philip Lawrence and the Dunblane tragedy, though not accidents, have served to put health and safety in the spotlight.
Sue Aucott, of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents says: "If you take any class of 30 children then, statisically, every child will suffer two accidental injuries before their sixteenth birthday. And before their sixteenth birthday, two children will be killed or injured in a road accident. Accidents are the main cause of death and injury for children."
Clearly many serious accidents take place outside school but schools can still reduce the risks of accidents. Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992, every employer in the country has to produce a written assessment of how likely is it that accidents could happen and what can be done to reduce the risk.
This risk assessment is designed fill the gap between what a school must do by law and what it should or would like to do to improve health and safety. Carrying out a risk assessment helps a school decide how far it needs to go to carry out its legal responsibilities. A school sets its own agenda and devises commonsense solutions to suit its individual circumstances.
The Management of Health and Safety at Work (1992) is one of a string of six European Union health and safety directives - commonly referred to as the "six pack" - which has pushed the risk management approach to the fore. The regulations cover managing risk, workplace health and safety, manual handling, maintaining equipment, protective clothing and protection for VDU operators. Many of the directives have only started to apply to schools from this year, complementing a raft of earlier legislation.
A risk assessment for all activities, equipment or buildings essentially involves ticking a box to indicate how high or a low risk each is. If a high-risk item is identified then a school must document the health and safety procedures it is adopting to minimise that risk. This can be anything from fire drills and procedures for organising school trips through to buildings maintenance and inspection.
Local health and safety advisers are often a school's first line of assistance. Most authorities will help their schools prepare risk assessments. David Moore, health and safety adviser for Hampshire, says schools should not worry too much about the fine details of legislation. "The key thing is schools are required to record the arrangements they already have in place to prove they have a system and that it works," he said.
The legislation for glass introduced as part of the Workplace Regulations last January sent many schools into a panic and had heads and site managers crawling around with tape measures, anxiously listing each and every pane of glass below waist height. But, as Mr Moore comments, all schools needed to do was assess the risks. Replacing glass was only one of several options.
There are a number of other organisations and publications that schools can turn to. The Health Education Authority funds an initiative called the European Network of Health Promoting Schools and the ubiquitous Croner's Head's Legal Guide and the Department for Education and Employment's School Governors - a guide to the law offer nuts and bolts advice on health and safety. And this month the RoSPA has thrown its hat into the ring with the publication of a resource pack for schools entitled Together Safely - Developing a Whole School Approach to Health and Safety.
It includes material for pupils, teachers, parents and governors to help schools review their health and safety policies in the light of recent legislation and to adopt a more safety-conscious culture.
Sue Aucott says: "A lot of these regulations are inaccessible because of their language. We have set out to interpret legal requirements in a way schools could understand, and we have tried to get the message across that current legislation requires them to take a stronger lead on health and safety. "
RoSPA's whole-school approach brings all the interest groups together. The reasoning is simple: schools need to have a greater awareness of what is going on in their local community and to develop an ethos whereby pupils can see safety as something relevant to their own lives - something that can help them become better citizens.
The guide encourages pupils to apply risk assessment to their own behaviour. Sue Aucott said: "It is not about 'Don't do this or don't do that,' the core is risk assessment and educating pupils by getting them to understand what risk is."
For staff, governors and parents her message is slightly different. They have a responsibility to ensure that the school itself is a "healthy" organisation. Having strong leadership and good communications will enable schools to take a positive lead on health and safety matters.
Sue Aucott complains: "There is a lot of buck-passing, going on with schools saying that what happens outside their gates is not their responsibility. But a lot of bullying takes place on the streets and a lot of accidents happen on the journey to and from school."