'Safety risk' tree faces the chop

13th June 2008 at 01:00
Council gets prickly as new school is built
Council gets prickly as new school is built

Headteachers have voiced their incredulity at the decision to fell a South American tree with razor sharp spikes because of worries for pupils' safety.

Swansea Council has decided the 50ft monkey puzzle in West Cross must be felled because its foliage and fruit could hurt children. But residents believe it is crazy to destroy the 150-year-old tree, a native of Chile.

Health and safety experts say the tree is dangerous, especially now that a new Welsh-medium school is being built nearby.

The council fears it could be charged with manslaughter if pupils are killed by the tree's "syringe needle" branches. Since April, schools in the UK are liable for any death on the premises, and heads admit they now think twice about activities that wouldn't have bothered them in the past.

Insurance companies have reported a huge rise in parents taking legal action against schools if their child receives minor injuries on the premises.

Gareth Jones, secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders Cymru, said making heads personally liable for health and safety has forced them into being safe rather than sorry. But he said there was concern in the profession that it was "creating an unreal environment for young people".

Sally Francis, head of Mount Airey Primary and Infants School in Pembrokeshire, said it was wrong for children to grow up in a "cotton-wool culture", and they needed to learn about the dangers of the outdoors environment.

Her school is successfully piloting the foundation phase (FP), which relies heavily on outdoor play. She said: "As a FP pilot school, we have areas that are left purposefully wild. Teasels, for example, are really prickly plants, but we have left some growing so children can learn about them."

Mrs Francis admitted it was difficult to know where to draw the line. "I worry that we are manufacturing a childhood where children are not learning life skills," she said.

Education minister Jane Hutt recently stressed the social and emotional benefits of the FP's outdoor play. But tragedies, such as the death of three-year-old Kian Williams at Hillgrove private school in Bangor last year, have reignited questions about liability.

James Porter, the proprietor, won an appeal last month against his conviction for breaching health and safety rules after the little boy died from the MRSA bug following a fall down stairs, allegedly while pretending to be Batman.

Iwan Guy, acting director of the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru, said there was not enough funding available to address potential hazards, such as crumbling school buildings.

"Everybody - the government and local authorities - is covering themselves and passing the responsibility to heads," said Mr Guy. "Some schools are even reluctant to take children on journeys outside school.

"As a teacher, I regularly took pupils to France but I definitely wouldn't do it now."

OTHER SPOILSPORTS

Derby City Council has told schools to cancel all trips in sunny weather in case pupils suffer sunburn or even sunstroke.

Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service has stopped all school demonstrations where real fires are started and controlled to show the dangers of chip-pan fires.

Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge has advised all post-finals students not to throw their mortar boards in the air for fear of causing an injury.

Schools in South Wales are being extra cautious over hiring out bouncy castles, fearing parents will sue them if pupils hurt themselves while jumping around.

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