Modern health & safety practice in education should boost exciting learning opportunities and not create legal tripwires as many urban safety myths suggest, says the official regulator which is keen to help school employers, managers and staff. Jon Herbert begins a new series looking at realistic risk management.

Term-time is demanding enough without the further burden of health and safety worries. Worries, however, instead of being ignored for a lack of good information, are best met head-on.

Which is why the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) (https://www.hse.gov.uk/) wants to turn what is often seen as a daunting responsibility and quasi-black art into an enriching opportunity for pupils and staff that can be implemented relatively easily by managers and employers.

Schools champion

As the government’s official health and safety (H&S) champion, HSE offers schools reliable help and advice, easily-accessed online information, links to external experts, updated news items and supporting case studies.

Yes, there are serious issues. Careful decisions must be made on a school-by-school basis based on individual personnel, skills, training, qualifications and experience, plus corporate and governance criteria. However, the regulator is also keen to debunk myths undermining staff confidence.

In HSE’s words, with misinformation removed, it is easier to “focus on real risks with potential to cause harm and not waste resources on trivial matters and unnecessary paperwork”.

HSE mission

Working with local authorities and other enforcing authorities, HSE’s mission is to encourage and ensure good occupational health and safety practice set out in primary legislation as the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, other acts and statutory instruments.

Specifically, HSE’s goal is to prevent deaths, injuries and ill health to those at work and affected by work activities. Its key tool is good risk management that measures, monitors and improves performance consistently. The aim is to promote risk awareness, not risk avoidance or eliminating all risks.

As a guide to its scope, H&S law covers all work activities carried out by schools that pose potential risks to staff, pupils and visitors – including off-site trips, but also contractors working in schools and overlooked risks such as vehicle and pedestrian movements.

This should not be confused with risks not regulated by H&S law – such as pupil welfare and wellbeing; communicable diseases; pupil behaviour and discipline; criminal record checks; food hygiene; licensing school minibus drivers; seat belt use; and waste and pollution control.

Importantly, HSE also leads discussions with trade unions and schools as employers and talks to appointed H&S representatives.

HSE and schools

In the last decade, the schools/regulator relationship has changed; HSE inspectors have not had to visit schools generally classified as a “low risk” environment routinely since 2011.

But HSE does have a duty to investigate complaints and accidents involving serious injury or fatalities and where the law is broken. It also has the right to make announced and unannounced visits where it feels relevant. In the worst cases, HSE can serve improvement notices and pursue prosecutions.

Widespread confusion over what is really required and potential penalties, made worse by credibly-sounding myths, has made many schools over-cautious and HSE is concerned that H&S is often used wrongly as an excuse to stop some totally reasonable school activities from going ahead.

This needs to change. Schools, HSE says, “are about providing children with a range of valuable learning experiences within which risks should be managed proportionately and sensibly”.

Myths and misinformation

Good risk management, it adds, is about common sense practical steps to protect people from real harm and suffering - not bureaucratic back covering – and should not stifling learning. For further clarity, it collates a Myth Busters Challenge Panel (https://www.hse.gov.uk/myth/myth-busting/education.htm).

The panel allows anyone told that a decision has been taken in the name of health and safety which they think disproportionate or inaccurate to check its credibility. Goggles, it was once said well-meaningly but wrongly, must be worn to play conkers. Other tested examples include H&S bans on sixth form students attending their last school day, babies at nativity plays and schools being prevented from heating up pupil’s home-prepared lunches.

Sensible risk management

In fact, the most common type of H&S incidents in school, as in other workplace sectors, is slips and trips that can often be prevented with simple low-cost solutions, such as timely repairs.

Other are falls from height and injuries from manual handling, vehicle and pedestrian movements, building and maintenance, plus adventure activities. Stress management and work-related violence can also be issues, as can asbestos management and legionella.

In primary school, ‘traditional’ secondary school and sixth form college classrooms with lower risk environments, H&S requirements are most probably already being met.

However, risks can increase with Design and Technology workshops, science laboratories, art studios, textiles, drama, and PE (https://www.hse.gov.uk/services/education/faqs.htm#a1). Specific risks may apply to school trips, sporting events and third parties using school premises.

More information about sensible risk management methodology is available at https://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg163.pdf.

Role of school leaders – who does what?

Education leaders – head teachers, boards of governors and other staff members – have specific duties. In general, employers rather than school staff are responsible for good H&S practice.

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 places overall responsibility for health and safety with the employer. In many cases this is the local authority. In others it is the governing body or school proprietor that have the overall legal responsibility and accountability for the health, safety and welfare of school staff and health and safety of pupils, visitors and volunteers.

However, this is an area where care is needed because the designation of employer can differ between types of school, with differences across England, Scotland and Wales.

Further variations can occur where local authorities transfer H&S-related functions to governing bodies with delegated budgets. Confusion here can lead to a failure to manage risks properly.

Keep it simple

The law requires employers to appoint a person with skills, knowledge and experience who can advise them competently on meeting their H&S duties (https://www.hse.gov.uk/simple-health-safety/gettinghelp/index.htm). This can be the employer, such as a local authority or Academy Trust, a school staff member with specialist curriculum knowledge, or via external support. Most risks can often be managed by the senior leadership team with staff and school employer help.

Sensible H&S practice should start at the top and all management team members must know how to control significant risks responsibly and proportionately to create a safe learning environment where pupils also understand and can manage risks (https://www.hse.gov.uk/services/education/sensible-leadership/school-leaders.htm).

Teachers, says HSE, normally only become personally liable if they ignore clear, direct instructions about serious risks and depart from all common sense; trying to act responsibly is on the right side of the law!

Summary

Modern risk management-based health and safety (H&S) practice in schools should be based on common sense and good will rather than myths and misinformation, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) (https://www.hse.gov.uk/). Sensible H&S in school is about “getting the balance right” so that:

  • the leadership team knows how to apply safety policy practically to real school risks

  • key staff have clearly established roles and responsibilities

  • minimal paperwork is used to identify significant hazards with risks controlled adequately and precautions clearly documented if needed

  • school leaders work with staff and employee/trade union safety representatives to find practical solutions

  • a good learning environment is promoted by proportionate decisions.

Last reviewed 31 January 2020