We spend so much time thinking about health and safety nowadays that children are in danger of missing out on many enjoyable activities

19th November 2004 at 00:00
Gemma During our last Ofsted inspection, a teacher carried out a simple experiment demonstrating how much oxygen there is in air. It involved placing a jam jar over a lighted candle. The inspector asked for the risk assessment sheet, and the teacher chuckled at this tension-breaking flash of humour. But no, this wasn't a joke... she was really expected to have written out a full risk assessment simply because she was sticking a jar over a lighted candle.

I sometimes feel we're roaming a world of insanity. We see horrifying violence all around us and yet we mollycoddle children in school to the point where we're even beginning to wonder if playtimes are a good idea. After all, there's usually only one teacher on duty, and if Charlie has an accident then Mrs Brown may well rub her hands at the prospect of compensation.

There's certainly no shortage of health and safety "specialists" eager to tell you what you're doing wrong. At a price. Fortunately, the person who visited us last was paid by the authority, not me. The computers were too high, the stools too low, the room too light, the furniture too cramped, the electric cable too visible. And that was just the ICT room. I'm glad she didn't look in the PE cupboard.

Every now and then schools are alerted to a new health issue. Cabin hooks, for example, which keep connecting doors open. A while ago an urgent directive was issued to premises officers telling them to remove these hooks from the doors along corridors and at entrances to halls. The thinkers and planners had decided that if a fire broke out and the doors in the school were hooked back, the flames would spread more rapidly. I refused to remove them, and I had my reasons carefully prepared when the fire officer arrived.

I explained that in 40 years of teaching in buildings like this one, I'd never seen a fire, and that, if there was no adult in sight, children would sprint through the doors on their way out to play because children were children. Then I stood an infant in front of a door, showing how, if it slapped back, the doorknob would effectively remove all his teeth. In my view, the danger of a fire was therefore considerably lower than the likelihood of a door-knobbed face. The officer nodded gravely, jotted down a note or two, and left. I didn't hear from him again.

We spend so much time thinking about health and safety nowadays that children are in danger of missing out on many enjoyable activities. A farm visit? Great idea. I'm sure the reception class would love it, but what about the food poisoning organisms present in farm animals? Campylobacter, salmonella, cryptosporidium, that sort of thing. What about the places the children can eat, their footwear, the risk of infection from animal bedding, foodstuff and faeces, remembering to dress cuts and grazes appropriately and ensure little hands are washed, telling the children not to kiss the animals? Then there's the whole debate about whether children should visit farms at all. It's a far cry from the days when I took children on two-week school trips to the Isle of Wight, where we always spent a day on a farm, often having a go on the tractor as well...

Yes, we're certainly more wary these days, although when Philip wanted his Year 6 class to build miniature balsa wood coffins for their Egyptian mummies last week and asked if we had any Stanley knives and tubes of wood glue, I nearly had a fit.

Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary, London borough of Southwark.

Email: mikejkent@aol.com

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