Governors neglect their role as health and safety custodians at their peril, reports Diana Hinds.
AN emergency closure is not how most governors would like to have ended the 20th century.
However, governors at Oakwood school, Stowmarket - a residential school for boys with emotional and behavioural problems - felt they had no choice as pupil behaviour deteriorated.
Last month, they passed an emergency resolution asking Suffolk education authority to use its powers to close the school temporarily, on the grounds of the risk to the health and safety of pupils and staff.
The school, which had already been subject to consultations on its possible closure, looks unlikely to reopen, and alternative arrangements are being made for its 43 pupils.
But it is an extreme example of how the role of governors in monitoring and ensuring health and safety in schools is moving up the agenda.
Health and safety has long been a part of governors' remit, but as more money for buildings is delegated from local authorities, so governors' health and safety responsibilities multiply. If governors andor the school's senior managers are aware that there is a hazard in school they are required by law to take reasonable steps to have it made safe. If they don't, they could be held liable if an accident
Responsibility for swimming pool safety can be a tricky area. But if the pool is in public use, under the aegis of the local authority, then it is the local authority which is responsible for their safety. Last year, an eight-year-old boy was drowned at a school pool in Leicestershire which had been hired out for a private party, when his hand got stuck in an uncovered filter pipe. Leicestershire County Council was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive, admitted liability and was fined pound;15,000 plus costs.
Exactly where governors' responsibilities end and local authority responsibility begins remains something of a grey area.
"We always say to governors that it's worthwhile taking out some legal insurance. They might find themselves in dispute with the local authority and will need legal advice," said Felicity Taylor, at Information for School and College Governors.
All governing bodies are responsible for ensuring that health and safety precautions are maintained in their school. Those in community ad controlled schools must follow the local authority's health and safety policy, while those in voluntary-aided and foundation schools must see that a policy is in place and that it is followed.
The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992 require all employers to assess the workplace risks faced by employees and others who may be affected (including pupils). More recently, the Education (School Premises) Regulations 1999 set out minimum standards relating to the health, safety and welfare of pupils in school.
So assessing risk in schools is an increasingly important task for governing bodies. Questions to ask include:
is there a danger?
how likely is it to happen and how serious could it be?
how could we prevent or mitigate the risk?
what are the priorities?
what action should be taken and by whom?
Some governing bodies may still be unaware of their duty to ensure that regular risk assessment is undertaken in school; others may actually be taking it upon themselves to carry out these risk assessments.
But Alan May, chair of governors at a Leicestershire primary school, is concerned that governors do not have the necessary expertise to do this properly. This year, his governing body voted to employ a specialist firm, paid for by the school, to do the risk-assessment exercise for them.
Chris Gale, chair of the National Governors' Council, warns: "Governors might try to do it all themselves. They should take a strategic overview and not get involved in the practicalities of the day-to-day management of the school."
Governing bodies need to have a health and safety committee, or sub-committee (or in a small school, a designated individual) who is kept informed by the member of staff responsible for health and safety of any difficulties or hazards.
They need to be sure that the headteacher has sound health and safety policies in place - for instance, with regard to playground supervision, use of the school minibus - and that all staff are familiar with these, and that they are carried out.
One of the principal difficulties for schools, according to Chris Gale, is that there is seldom enough money to do all that could be done to improve health and safety. But governors can be useful here, she says, in helping a school to determine what its priorities are.