Thursday, 19 February 2009

Education is a Risky Business

The case of Timothy Sutton, the eight year old who was killed by a falling tree while walking with his family in Dunham Massey Park, was tragic. The subsequent legal battle over liability typifies the societal shift that is undermining so many important components of a good education.

I welcome the decision by the Health and Safety Executive [HSE] not to prosecute the National Trust, but find their reasoning for doing so more worrying:
"This was a complex case, and our conclusion that there was no realistic prospect of conviction for any breaches of health and safety law reflects the opinions sought from expert witnesses and legal advisors."
We have moved to a blame culture. Accidents don't happen anymore. It is always somebody's fault. Someone can always be sued. The scope for "acts of God" is diminishing by the year. Sadly, the HSE's decision not to prosecute reflects a pragmatic view based on the likelihood of a conviction, rather than a shift in belief about the existence of accidents.

Safest Children in the World?
The UNICEF Innocenti Research Group [Innocenti Report Card #2] concluded in 2001 - based on data from 1991-95 - that the UK's children are the second safest in the OECD [after Sweden]. The UK had a child injury death rate of 6.1 deaths/100,000 population [down from 14.3 in 1971-75, when the UK was the fourth safest country in the OECD]. It is not unreasonable to speculate that by 2011-15 that the rate will have fallen still further.

I am concerned that our children are not learning to handle risk, because danger is taken from them at every opportunity. They don't get so much practice crossing the road, because they are driven to school. They don't go for bike rides, for fear of accident or abduction. Once they cross the threshold of any institution, they are not allowed to climb trees, to throw snowballs, to play conkers and so on, lest the lawyers have a field day. They live controlled lives - no wonder there has been an explosion in "extreme sports". No one wants to see a child die - but I would like to see them live too.

This is madness. The time has come for the Nation to say that enough is enough. I believe that the price of being the safest country in the world is too high. We have gone too far.

Earlier this week my eleven year old son spent a very happy morning, whittling a tree branch into a spear with his Swiss Army knife before proceeding to build a camp fire on the patio, on which he cooked [cremated?] some bacon for what he considered one of the best bacon sarnies he had ever eaten. There was no direct adult supervision, no risk assessment and no accident. My son had a lot of fun and he learned a lot. I suspect that the same would have applied even if he had cut or burned himself. It was not without risk. In fact, the risks were probably so great that few schools would allow the activity to take place – or, if they were to do so, that the “control measures” would have been such to have sanitised all the fun and educational value from the exercise.

A “Risk-free” Education
I do not believe in a “risk-free” education. Of course schools have a duty of care, but we must acknowledge that we do have to take risks if we are to allow young people to grow and develop. We have moved from a culture of minimising and managing risk to one of eliminating it. Sadly, the consequence of this in many cases is not to do certain activities. I find it depressing that Chemistry teachers report that certain experiments are no longer allowed in schools, or that pupils have to watch demonstrations rather than doing the experiment themselves. How dangerous were the experiments of my youth? How many serious accidents were there then?

School Trips
There is evidence from the Maintained Sector [See Select Committee on Education and Skills Second Report] that staff are less willing to take school trips and run activities for fear of litigation. The NASUWT, the second largest teaching union, advises its members:
Because of the great personal and professional risks involved, members should consider carefully whether or not to participate in non-contractual educational visits and journeys. If members ignore this advice then every effort should be made to minimise the risk.

At present the NASUWT are alone. The [usually more militant] National Union of Teachers [NUT] take a reassuringly more positive approach:
The Union believes that school visits can be of substantial benefit to pupils in the development of their characters and social skills. For many they offer opportunities to broaden their horizons and enrichen their experience, which would otherwise be unavailable in their lives. School journeys and visits are generally considered to be of educational value in developing the potential and qualities of children and young people. Recent tragic incidents, however, have shown that proper and full concern for health and safety must be an imperative at every stage.
School Sport
If the accident records in the schools in which I have worked are anything to go by, the most dangerous activity in most schools by a considerable margin is playing rugby. By its very nature, a full contact game is going to cause accidents. Change is coming here too. The RFU, as guardians of the game, are concerned that they will be liable in the event of an accident. The RFU presently “recommends” that all rugby coaches and referees are properly qualified or supervised by those who are.
Clubs and Schools are strongly advised that qualified coaches supervise all persons who do not hold current coaching qualifications appropriate to the age grades they are coaching.
It is likely that this will become a requirement in the near future; and the ESRFU is advising schools to get staff on a course at the earliest opportunity. I would be amongst the first to argue that young people deserve good coaches and good referees. And, yes, these do go some way to making the game safer. However, I would not equate good coaching with paper qualifications – just because a member of staff is “badged up” it does not make him a good coach and it does not necessarily mean that his game will be safe. Above all, I am concerned that teachers in schools and volunteers in Clubs will decide not to become coaches for fear of litigation.

Risk Assessment
The whole question of Risk Assessments are at the heart of this debate. I believe that the purpose of Risk Assessments is to demonstrate that a teacher or school has considered the risks and has put reasonable measures in place to ensure that a particular activity is likely to be safe. At the end of the day it is not a guarantee that an accident will not happen. They should not be used either as a mechanism to pass the buck or as an excuse not to do a particular activity.

The role of Headteachers and Governors
I believe that School Governors and Headteachers have an important part to play here, for it is they who are ultimately responsible for Health and Safety matters. The easy course of action is for a Governing Body or Head to give an overly cautious lead – it might be safe option but I am not sure that it would be right educationally. If teachers are going to continue providing young people with the enriching and stretching education opportunities, then they must feel and be supported by Governors and the School SMT. There needs to be trust between teachers, SMTs and Governors.

Heads and SMTs need to make it easy for staff to be able to take trips and run those activities that entail a higher level of risk. In-house expertise - be that in the form of full-time Health and Safety Officers or a designated member of the SMT- has an important part to play in enabling us to retain these higher risk activities on the school curriculum. Teachers need advice and support lest the NASUWT approach permeate to our sector.

Education is a risky business – long may it remain so!


  1. One aspect of life at Berkhamsted is the involvement of the armed forces in the school. For three years my son has enjoyed the weekly CCF meetings and I have actively encouraged him to go away with the CCF. I agree totally that a risk free upbringing is not good, and the CCF has taught many of the boys and girls how to look after themselves.

    On one trip to the Brecon Beacons he fell as he was running, with a bergen on his back and a gun in his hands. Both of his front teeth were broken as he fell on the gun. He required a lot of dental work and I was advised to sue. I didn't because I never want the school to decide that membership of the CCF is too risky.

    My son has been on ski trips, learned to dive and lived for a long damp weekend under a piece of plastic. All these activities were risky, but I believe have made him into a rounded, happy individual who I am very proud of. Thank you Berkhamsted, please keep it up.

  2. You hit the nail on the head (assuming that's permitted by the H+S lobby) when you talk about the need for managed risk in education.

    As a pupil at Berkhamsted I found the freedom to learn about assessing risk and taking appropriate chances through the CCF, DofE and other school activities.

    For me, there was no better place to learn the basics of leadership and self-sufficiency than hiking with friends over snowy Brecon peaks, or flying with the Army Air Corps during Summer camp. They are some of my fondest school memories, and I am grateful to the teachers who gave of their time to allow me the chance to learn some vital life lessons.

    Now, as a teacher at Berkhamsted, it is a source of great pride that these traditions continue. Watching young men and women taking on the same challenges, along the same routes I trod, and seeing their satisfaction at the end of a grueling expedition, is a reminder that all they need to learn can't be taught in the warmth and comfort of a class room.

    I hope you are right and the Health and Safety lobby doesn't infringe on our freedom to offer outward bound adventurous training. I've seen it restrict colleagues trying to run DofE and the like when I worked in the maintained sector. I do understand the need to keep our young safe, but that shouldn't restrict the opportunity to take chances and confront realistic obstacles.

    The world outside the school gates will be no safer just because we hide our students away from reality.