Mike Kent: Safety fears have me in stitches

23rd October 2009 at 01:00
The Elf and Safety Lady has been to do the annual audit.

Usually, I'm confronted by a tiresome, tunnel-visioned official. The last one told the teachers their risk assessments for taking classes swimming weren't comprehensive enough as they didn't include provision for a terrorist attack. And these officials constantly remind me we live in a litigious society.

Yes, I say - a society where policemen refuse to jump into a lake to save a drowning child, flower baskets are removed from lamp posts lest they drop on people's heads, a game of conkers becomes a dangerous playground activity, and Ofsted inspectors (of all people!) tell policewomen they can't childmind each other's children.

But, surprise, this year's E and S Lady is warm and friendly and even has a sense of humour. Until now I'd assumed the main requirement of an E and S person was an inability to laugh.

Mind you, once we get to the nitty gritty, the absurdities soon rise to the surface. Have I any pregnant teachers and, if so, have I done risk assessments on them? They could be struck in the stomach by violent children, or fall over a trip hazard, or collapse from weariness if their teaching schedule isn't shortened. And then . well, I don't have to tell you. They'd sue, because we live in a litigious society.

I explain that I do have a pregnant teacher, that I have an excellent relationship with her, and that she'd tell me immediately if there was a problem, thus eliminating a lengthy risk assessment. And no, I don't tolerate violence from children in my school.

We move on to Portable Appliance Testing (PAT). Years ago, teachers would bring any old electrical item into the classroom, often with dodgy wiring, and this wasn't a great idea. Hence the emergence of mandatory PAT, where local electricians made a killing by inspecting plugs and the wires going into them, and then charging pound;4 an item. Affordable in the days of epidiascopes, but now? There are 20 electrical items in my office alone. Surely, I say, there isn't much need for PAT these days? Even an electric toothbrush comes with a moulded plug. Ah, she says, the wires could be frayed, and don't forget we live in a litigious society.

We're not even safe when we turn the staffroom tap on. Have I had the water tested, because there's always a risk of legionnaire's disease? I explain that I wouldn't let a diseased legionnaire within a mile of my school. I also explain that the loft tanks have just been replaced, that we don't have air conditioning, and that water doesn't have a chance to stagnate. But I'm told it would still be a good idea to have it checked. Just in case. Better safe than sorry. Because we live . etc.

And on it goes. I need a fire safety check, even though our fire-safety equipment, including alarms, is checked frequently. It'll cost me pound;600, and I know what they'll say. The walls are covered with children's work, and it's a fire hazard. Tear it down. And keep those corridor swing doors closed, to stop fire spreading . even though they could easily swing back and the door knobs could take a child's teeth out, which in my ancient stone building is far more likely than a fire. And even though we were re-wired a few years ago, I also need an electrical safety inspection. Another pound;600.

Somewhere along the line, someone needs to say, "Stop - this has become ridiculous. Put the flower basket back on the lamp post and just make sure it's tied securely."

At the moment, I'm even wondering whether I should allow the infant children to climb on our new playground equipment. Perhaps I should insist they come to school in hard hats and combat boots .

- Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, South London. Email: mikejkent@aol.com.

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