Safe and sound in an adult world

16th June 2006 at 01:00
FE colleges that accept children must enforce safety, says Martin Whittaker

When under-16s first set foot inside FE colleges, principals and governors were concerned about health and safety issues.

Some colleges already collaborated with schools but most found themselves in new territory with the introduction of the increased flexibility programme, in which pupils spend part of their school week in colleges.

Suddenly, engineering and construction workshops - designed to simulate workplaces - had to open their doors to children. Where did responsibility for their health and safety lie? What policies and procedures did the college need?

Failure to clarify such questions landed one college in court. When a young student had a minor accident, it followed its own health and safety rules but failed to report the incident to the head of its partner school or the local authority. The college was fined pound;5,000.

There are now more than 100,000 under-16s in English FE colleges, and this number will increase dramatically as access to vocational education expands.

Susan Hayday, curriculum manager at the Association of Colleges, said there are guidance materials and general training for college staff.

"At the start of the IFP a lot of principals were saying, 'I need to know what I need to put in place'," she said. "But, in fact, reported incidents have been slight. I think generally everyone agrees that it has been really successful.

"It has motivated youngsters who don't like the school environment or curriculum."

The University and College Union says it hears complaints from some staff that they do not have enough information on health and safety for under-16s.

Although guidance is available, it is not properly understood - particularly in terms of what younger students can and cannot do in the workshop, says the union.

In some colleges staff training has been inadequate, and, while they may know the guidelines, information does not always get through. Health and safety for those under 16 is complex. According to government guidance, a risk assessment should be done before such pupils go on college premises or work placements.

In consulting over the supervision required, the school should take into account a list of factors, including the maturity and experience of the pupil, their behaviour and age, and the wishes of parents.

Children on placements are designated as employees for health and safety purposes. Those offering placements have to assess the risks and do what is reasonably practical to reduce them.

Schools, colleges and employers should agree health and safety procedures and named contacts before placements begin. Local organisers must also ensure placements are suitable.

Responsibility for pupils' health and safety lies with the local education authority in the case of community and voluntary-controlled schools, and the governors of foundation and voluntary-aided schools. The college's governing body also has responsibility for under-16s placed with them, and for conducting risk assessments. While young learners are on college premises, it has a duty of care towards them.

Findings of risk assessments must be shared with the school which, in turn, is responsible for telling parents. Colleges should also ensure schools make them aware of medical needs. They also need standards of safety for pupils, including clothing such as boots and hard hats in construction areas, eye and ear protection in engineering workshops, and the safe use of chemicals in hairdressing.

They must also have a system for reporting accidents to schools, the Health and Safety Executive and the local authority, and decide what equipment or materials 14 to 16-year-olds can use.

The boundaries have become blurred by the need to give pupils a real experience of vocational education and training.

Stephen Green, health and safety consultant for the AoC, said: "We should allow youngsters to experience real work, as long as it's not going that step too far."

For further information see: felonglearninguk.orgcurrentactivity14_16_modules.html

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