The issue - Health and safety

9th September 2011 at 01:00
A policy rethink could mean a new common-sense approach to health and safety in schools

Last month, The Scotsman reported the unusual story of a school worker who fell as she stood on a toilet bowl to open a window as a courtesy to other colleagues using the cubicle.

Marie Wallace, a clerical assistant at Kirkriggs School, Glasgow, was awarded pound;15,900 damages after an appeal court overturned a previous ruling that her action in attempting to open a 7ft-high window was "unreasonable and unrealistic".

Mrs Wallace was seriously injured after the toilet bowl toppled to one side and collapsed on her foot. She required surgery for fractures and a detached Achilles tendon, and has still not fully recovered.

The appeal judges made the award after hearing no risk assessment had been made as to how the toilet window could be opened, closed or adjusted - in breach of workplace regulations. Although she was partially to blame for her injury, the judges agreed she was acting out of courtesy to other female employees at the school. Following the accident, a window pole was kept in the toilet.

The case is an example of how freak accidents can happen at school. It underlines the importance for heads, school governors and local authorities to keep on top of their legal responsibilities for the health and safety of children and staff at school or on school visits.

Last month, the Department for Education (DfE) issued new guidance on health and safety in the classroom and on school trips. The guidance comes in a slim, eight-page document and replaces 150 pages of advice and guidance on good health and safety practice, as part of a campaign to cut paperwork in the public sector.

The new document leaves health and safety requirements across the UK largely unchanged, but stresses the importance of taking a common-sense, proportionate approach, especially on school trips.

It builds on new advice on trips and outdoor learning issued by the Health and Safety Executive in July, which urges school leaders to consider the benefits alongside the risks. "Those running school trips need to focus on the risks and the benefits to people - not the paperwork," it says.

The biggest change in the Government guidance comes in the form of a standard DfE consent form asking parents to give approval for their children to take part in all trips and outdoor activities during their time at school.

When it comes to risk assessments and potential accidents on school premises the new guidance, which applies to England only, makes no immediate changes to previous advice. However, the Government is reviewing health and safety laws affecting schools and promises to simplify them as part of its campaign to cut bureaucracy.

"Stripping away anything that is unnecessary and deflects from the core activity of teaching and learning is welcome," says Sion Humphreys, policy adviser at heads' union the NAHT.

"On the other hand, teaching and learning has to take place in a safe and conducive environment."

But NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates has accused ministers of being "reckless and irresponsible" over their decision to scrap over 140 pages of guidance and good practice, which she says is intended to help schools protect children and staff. "My concern is that something serious is going to happen either to a child or to an employee and then it will be too late."

The new guidance contains:

Departmental advice on health and safety.

Advice on legal duties and powers for heads, governors and local authorities.

DfE consent form.

Standard form covering a child's participation in any type of activity where parental consent is required, such as school trips and outdoor learning activities.

Advice issued by the Health and Safety Executive.

Documents are available at

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