The apparent madness of health and safety is well documented. Newspapers regularly bewail the over-cossetted lives of children banned from playing in the snow or forced to wear goggles while playing conkers.
But now a headteacher who puts shotguns in the hands of primary children, encourages them to play with fire and has herds of wild animals roaming through the school is to be the new face of health and safety.
Mike Fairclough’s ability to assess danger – and yet still take risks – has resulted in a collaboration with the national Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
His school – West Rise Junior in East Sussex – came to prominence when it was named TES primary school of the year in 2015. Its innovative curriculum – children go claypigeon shooting, tend bees and smelt iron (they even, on one occasion, slaughtered a pig) – was subsequently profiled in the TES.
As a result, the school came to the attention of Dame Judith Hackitt, HSE chair. She is planning to visit West Rise in March, to demonstrate that health and safety need not mean wrapping children in cotton wool.
“Some newspapers give a very skewed and inaccurate picture of what the Health and Safety Executive is all about,” Mr Fairclough says. “They talk about the HSE as one step away from God – it can walk into any organisation and shut it down immediately.
“But it’s all about safeguarding people, not about limiting the kinds of things that they can do. It’s about examining the possible hazards and the likelihood of harm to individuals, and making sure that they don’t happen.”
For example, West Rise has a herd of water buffalo on-site. “Enormous horned animals,” Mr Fairclough says. “We want children to be able to engage with the animals, but not to walk across the field with something that looks like a bag of food for the buffalo, because they’ll be mauled to death.”
Similarly, during clay-pigeon shoots – when pupils are given shotguns and air rifles – the gun instructor begins the session by laying a shotgun on the floor.
“Is this dangerous?” the instructor asks.
Immediately, a number of hands go up: yes, it is, the pupils say.
“No, it’s not,” the instructor replies. “It’s when it’s in your hand that it’s dangerous.”
Dame Judith and Mr Fairclough (pictured below) agree that only by embracing the danger – with the correct health-and-safety measures in place – can children learn.
“When our hives are opened, you have thousands of honey bees on the children,” says Mr Fairclough. “These are children who, prior to that experience, will be running away from one honey bee in the playground.
“It’s expanding outside your comfort zone. Staying in your comfort zone is the worst thing you can do.”
It is when there are no health-and-safety measures in place that accidents happen, Mr Fairclough says. West Rise runs a Forest School in local marshes, where children use saws and axes, and learn how to make fire. “We can reduce the danger by making sure that we have thought about all the possible hazards,” he says. “We’ve never, ever had an accident, because children are taught properly how to use knives and fire.
“But if we don’t allow children to explore fire – to understand the dangers as well as the benefits – the appeal is going to be there anyway. They’ll go home and play with matches. Just being alive is a risk. We’re on a planet that is spinning approximately 1,000 miles an hour around the sun. We live in a pretty unpredictable world, in terms of weather and politics.
“The reality of life is that there’s danger in it. Things happen that knock us for six sometimes. By expanding your awareness, you’re more likely to be able to deal with things when they come up.”
Increasingly, headteachers are aware that they could be prosecuted for failing to ensure that appropriate health-and-safety measures are in place for any activity. But Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says that this would be unlikely to stop headteachers from providing pupils with access to risk-filled activities.
“The headteacher who’s saying you can’t wrap youngsters in cotton wool is absolutely correct,” he says. “You need to give them a broad range of activities.
“One of the things that the secretary of state is very much pushing is the development of character. That means youngsters are going to have to go into situations in which they are challenged, either physically or mentally. It’s a vital part of education.”
The latest Department for Education health-and-safety advice for schools (bit.ly/SchoolsHS) states:
Children should be able to experience a wide range of activities. Health-and-safety measures should help them to do this safely, not stop them altogether.
It is important that children learn to understand and manage the risks that are a normal part of life.
Common sense should be used in assessing and managing the risks of any activity.
Health-and-safety procedures should always be proportionate to the risks of an activity.
Staff should be given the training they need so that they can keep themselves and children safe and manage risks effectively.