Watch your back - it's another health and safety directive

14th November 1997 at 00:00
Is it a teacher's job to check the school's 300 electrical plugs every year? Why can't you hook the playground doors back? Mike Kent believes that heads should not always stick to the letter of the law

As schools are well aware, health and safety has been elevated to status of the in-tray (as opposed to "Chuck it in the bucket, Doreen") , and there seems to be a philosophy among local authority health and safety departments that the best way forward is to shovel all the responsibility into the headteacher's lap as quickly as possible.

Provided they have sent a piece of paper (well, an entire portfolio of paper, actually) telling the head to drop everything and get busy on this latest directive right away, they've done their bit. If there's an accident, a fire, if somebody gets electrocuted or falls down the stairs... well, blame the school. After all, the school was sent the directive, and the head should have "actioned" it.

Take cabin hooks, for example. These are the sturdy metal rods that hold the hall doors back when the children file out of assembly. In fact, they're on doors all over my school; at the end of corridors, at the bottom of staircases.

When my premises management officer - you know, they used to call them schoolkeepers and before that caretakers - came in to see me for our usual Monday morning meeting in which we discuss the various crises that have arisen since I climbed out of my car 10 minutes previously, I noticed he was wearing his serious face.

"Cabin hooks," he announced gravely.

"I haven't got any spare ones," I said brightly. "We could order some, though."

"You don't have to buy any." he explained. "They've got to come off. All of 'em."

"What on earth for?" I asked. "Who said?" "This bit of paper. 'Ealth and safety."

And indeed it did. The thinkers and planners in the town hall's health and safety department had been at work, deciding that if a fire should break out and the doors in the school were hooked back, the flames could move through the corridors more rapidly.

"I'll get me screwdrivers," the premises management officer said. "I can probably get 'em all off today."

"I don't want them off today," I said. "In fact, I don't want them off at all."

He glanced at me with that special look suggesting headteacher and premises management officer might be in for the first disagreement of the day. "Well, it's down to you if there's an accident, then," he said. "All the other schools are removing 'em right now."

In half an hour, I'd forgotten about the hooks, but a few days later a letter from the town hall arrived, stating testily that my door furniture couldn't remain intact; furthermore, a fire officer would be visiting that week to lay matters on the line.

By the time he arrived, I'd prepared my case and I asked him to stand beside one of the hall swing doors. I explained that although everyone was always told to walk about the building, children were children, and if an adult wasn't in sight quite a few youngsters would undoubtedly try to sprint through the doors on their way out to play Batman and Robin (health and safety unapproved version). I sent for an infant of average height, stood the child in front of the door and showed how, if the door was allowed to swing back uncontrolled, the child would at best be hit sharply in the face by the handle, and at worst have his teeth removed. I also explained that I'd taught in buildings exactly like this for 36 years, and there had never been the smallest fire in any of them. From my point of view, the danger of a fire was therefore considerably lower than the likelihood of a door-knobbed face. The fire officer nodded gravely, jotted down lots of notes and hurried away. I heard nothing more, and my cabin hooks are still on my doors.

But cabin hooks are small fish compared with electrical plugs. Nowadays schools have the responsibility for checking every electrical item, every year. Superficially, this sounds like a good idea, but in practice it is a nightmare. My primary school has more than 300 electrical items and there are 43 computers alone. Since headteachers aren't electricians, (not yet, anyway) the idea is to pay a specialist firm to come in and check everything. At today's prices, this is approximately Pounds 4.50 an item - quite a chunk from an over-stretched budget. In addition, because the test gear is quite intricate, everything has to be gathered in one place for at least a week, which is inconvenient, to say the least.

Provided all the gear in the school is kept in good condition and the children don't handle electrical leads, I'd say the likelihood of an accident is remote, but the head always has the nagging worry that if he doesn't pay up for checking, he could be paying up when Mrs Jones decides to sue the school instead.

Ultimately, I agreed with the governors to have one big electrical check every five years, and then in the intervening years, insist that if a plug needed to be changed, it could only be done by me, for which I am prepared to accept the responsibility. Frankly, the school budget couldn't support any other option, although it wouldn't make your average health and safety officer beam with delight.

Actually meeting a health and safety expert in the flesh can be quite an extraordinary and daunting experience. One Friday, when minor health and safety problems had occurred - a child had thrown up on my threadbare carpet, and part of a ceiling had collapsed from accumulated rainwater after pigeons had set up fairly extensive living quarters in the guttering - I received a hefty packet from the local authority's property services manager. Inside was a set of questionnaires for every adult in the building, designed to see if we were at risk form staring at computer screens all day. There were lots of little boxes to tick, the usual wad of helpful instructions guaranteed to confuse the average Mensa candidate, and an unbelievably detailed points checklist. Score more than 70 points and there was a chance you wouldn't even survive until four o'clock. A similar package of paper had been despatched to every school in the borough.

Now, I could understand the validity of such a package if I was a telephonist for BT stuck in front of a screen all day, but I'm not, and nor are my teachers. They probably spend less than a couple of hours a week looking at classroom computer screens, and even my trusty administration officer - they used to be called school secretaries, remember - spends far more time bandaging cut knees and selling raffle tickets than she does typing pupils' names into a computer. I therefore responded to the authority's representative with a shirty letter.

On the following Monday, the gentleman gave me a ring, saying that, really, the forms were for our own good, and anyway, a lot of it was out of his hands because it emanated from Brussels. Nevertheless, he'd send one of his health and safety people to have a little chat with me.

The woman duly arrived, and hadn't been in my room for more than two seconds before she'd condemned my entire computer system. The chair was the wrong type, the desk was at the wrong height, the VDU was at the wrong angle, and there wasn't enough leg room. If she'd seen the floral pattern on my cushion, she would have had a heart attack.

Then, on to my administration officer's cramped quarters, where there is a large metal cabinet containing the computer, the VDU and printer, all sitting on shelves that have to be pulled out if the equipment needs to be used. This cabinet caused the lady to step back in horror. It was no good at all, apparently, and contravened all sorts of sections in all sorts of Health and Safety Acts. I replied that it was standard local authority issue, and had to be like that to stop everything inside it being nicked.

During the next hour, the lady castigated everything she looked at in the office, while explaining the intricate and detailed workings of the Health and Safety Act to be bemused administration officer, who not only coped with this onslaught in her usual smooth, efficient manner, but dealt with dinner tins, cut knees and registers at the same time.

Finally, the lady played her trump card, handing me her business address, she explained that she only worked for the authority on a consultative basis, and would gladly come along and do me a risk assessment survey ... at a mere Pounds 450 a day. I hurriedly looked at my watch and said the nursery children were waiting for me to read them a story.

It's a good thing she isn't in my school. As I write, we're being re-wired, and the place is filled with drills, conduit, pipe-benders, sudden explosions of dust, and incredible levels of noise. My teachers are an amazing lot; they've gritted their corporate teeth (gritted is apt, given the level of muck in the air) and ploughed on. In the middle of all this, I'm trying to produce the school play, with a cast of thousands and lights that go on and off every time the electricians check the next bit of wiring.

Meanwhile, outside, a mains water pipe has burst - spectacularly - and a team of plumbers are busily giving the playground more trenches than were dug at Ypres during the First World War.

With one eye on health and safety, of course, the workmen have surrounded their trenches with netting, but the children, their imaginative play to the fore, are devising all sorts of splendid activities, like seeing how many tennis balls can be landed in a trench before the plumber leaps screaming over the netting. Should we shut the school down? If there's an accident, the parents will be demanding to know why I didn't. If I do, the parents will want to know who's supposed to look after their kids while they're out trying to earn a crust. What chance does a poor headteacher have?

Still, when I come home on Fridays to celebrate yet another week successfully navigated and find it's Ted Wragg's turn on the back of The TES, I feel things are at least put into something like their true perspective. Indeed, I sometimes wonder why he hadn't been made Chief Inspector For Common Sense in Schools. But then, I suppose he'd never take the job. He couldn't stand the lunacy he'd encounter.

* Mike Kent is headteacher of Comber Grove Primary School, Southwark, south London

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