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Is your playground safe?

Phil Revell reports on what schools can do to prevent accidents like the tragic death of Rianna Davenport.

The tragic death of eight-year-old Rianna Davenport will have prompted heads all over the country to cast an anxious eye around their school site.

Rianna was killed when a tree fell into the playground of Surrey's West Ashtead county primary school. It was a freak accident, but every major storm results in a few deaths caused by trees. How worried should schools be? "We've planted 5 million trees and have yet to have a single incident like this," said a spokesman for the Woodland Trust. "Most accidents happen when trees fall on to roads."

The trust does, however, recommend some precautions. A look around the school site in mid-summer would identify trees with problems. Mature hardwoods such as the beech and chestnut are the most likely to fall after a storm.

"People should look for deadwood and for branches with poor leaf growth," said Mark Fletcher, the trust's tree safety officer. "On our sites we inspect trees overhanging roads on a yearly basis."

Trees may not be the most urgent danger, however. A more common hazard may be loose roof tiles or a hole in a fence allowing children to run on to a main road.

But just because a theoretical risk exists does not mean that a school has to axe an activity or close off part of the grounds.

Schools may have to balance different risks. One head was concerned about a fire-escape door that slammed violently in strong winds. Local safety officers backed his decision to lock the door on windy days: the slamming door was a bigger threat to children than fire.

If schools think that there is a problem they should get urgent advice - usually from their local authority. Every council has a safety officer and most a tree expert. Surrey education authority has promised tree inspections where schools have concerns.

Foundation and voluntary-aided schools can ask their insurers for help with risk assessment.

And before heads rush out with a chainsaw they should remember many trees are subject to a preservation order, though that would not stop action if there is a real risk.

"Dead, dying or dangerous trees should be dealt with," said Mark Fletcher.

"There's no need to wait for permission if it's dangerous."

Problems may arise if the danger - whether tree, fence, or derelict building - is on someone else's land. Good neighbours will deal with a problem, but legal action may be necessary if owners will not pay.

Meanwhile, the school would isolate that part of the site.

If there is a tragedy the school or council public liability policy should cover any claim. But a tree fall could be seen as an "unforeseeable occurrence", in which case no one would be at fault and no claim would succeed.

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