Last reviewed 30 July 2021

The removal of special Covid-19 measures this summer will mean coming to terms with both old, familiar and new health and safety issues in a changing normal where pupils deserve a sporting chance of success beyond the classroom and school gate.

Working, learning and living comfortably within the Government’s revised guidelines could potentially be challenging in the months ahead as management teams learn how best to apply evolving and updated advice. Good ventilation, for example, is likely to be a continuing priority.

Most schools will probably have enough on their plates organising and managing a basic return to the classroom in line with the new parameters set out by education secretary Gavin Williamson on 6 July 2021 without the added complication of external school events.

However, in either the short or long term, more physical pursuits and off-site events must at some point become part of a school’s broader health and safety remit once again.

Old and new risks

‘Old normal’ H&S issues, from slips and trips to falls and other common workplace incidents, have not gone away and must be included in any comprehensive risk assessment. But as activities expand into the wider environment, events will increasingly include sports and swimming, trips and visits.

More adventurous projects may not be on the immediate agenda. Even so, careful early planning is likely to lead to more successful outcomes for everyone as pupils, staff, parents, suppliers and venue operators adjust after more than a year of abnormal working.

While some guidelines and advice are unchanged from before the pandemic, others could be updated as circumstances continue to change.

The Prime Minister, meanwhile, set out the Government’s Step 4 ‘roadmap’ changes for England in a statement on 5 July to explain ‘how life will soon return close to normal’.

Step 4 end of restrictions in England's schools

This means that from the start of the school autumn term (from 16 August) the "bubble" system — in which children only mixed within a fixed year or class group — will end. Similarly, face coverings and social distancing will no longer be mandatory; schools will no longer have to stagger start and finish-times. However, some may decide to continue.

The NHS Test and Trace system will take over responsibility for nursery, school and college contact tracing. Pupils who test positive will be contacted and told to isolate. Children — or parents — will be asked for information about close contacts at school and elsewhere, plus contact details, if known.

From 16 August, under-18s who have been in close contact with an infected person will no longer need to self-isolate unless they also have a positive PCR test result. If negative, they will not be required to self-isolate or take further tests. As a one off, schools will also be asked to offer pupils two lateral flow tests at the start of the autumn term.

Health & safety, play and leisure

The Government’s post-Step 4 Schools COVID-19 operational guidance, updated on 19 July 2021, includes a section on “Educational visits”.

The basic health and safety principle is that pupils must be safe in school and during out-of-school activities, but risk management should be proportional to the nature of the activities. Ministers believe teachers should be able to take pupils on exciting trips to broaden their horizons from autumn 2021, while also ensuring that they are safe in playgrounds and while enjoying sport.

Specific updated post-Step 4 guidance for the public and sport providers is available here. It provides information on how to organise and take part in grassroots sport and physical activities as safely as possible, with advice on steps to reduce the risk of virus transmission in the sport environment.

Health and safety myths

The HSE provides guidance about school visits with the caveat that misunderstanding what the law requires must not be allowed to discourage organised play and leisure activities. The aim is not to eliminate risk but weigh up the risks and benefits responsibly.

To counter many H&S myths, it has published a policy statement to help “remove wasteful bureaucracy imposed on those involved in organising school visits and outdoor learning activities” and notes that many visits have taken place successfully in the past and should do again.

HSE says the focus should be on controlling risks and securing, or increasing, education benefits, rather than paperwork. Accidents and mistakes happen, but the importance of litigation and prosecution has been emphasised out of proportion, it adds.

The advice is to concentrate on real risks with a proportionate and sensible approach to planning, and that staff organising visits “should simplify the planning process and authorisation arrangements for visits that involve everyday risks”.

HSE explains that its “primary interest is real risks arising from serious breaches of the law. Any HSE accident investigation will be targeted at these issues”. Where the principles above are followed, the law is highly unlikely to be broken; in a five-year period, HSE brought just two cases involving school visits.

Sport and physical activity

More energetic school activities should be covered by an existing H&S policy. However, the Association for Physical Education is an expert source of guidance and current information.

Its 2020 Safe Practice: in Physical Education, School Sport and Physical Activity, which is updated every four years, offers professional advice to help “teachers, coaches and school governors protect their students and themselves from potential risks across both the curriculum and extra-curricular activities”.

Back in the swim of things

One physical activity enjoyed by many young people that has been particularly hard hit during the pandemic is swimming. However, Swim England has published comprehensive Return to Pools Guidance based on scientific advice. FAQs are answered here and this will also be updated regularly.

Robust recommendations are given for clubs and community swimming, plus school swimming and swimming leisure centres, with specific details for the return of organised training and water polo matches. Water sport planning should include instructors and lifeguards, with extra care taken with hotel swimming pools and water leisure activities that do not have trained lifeguards.

The Outdoor Education Advisers’ Panel (OEAP) supports local authorities, schools and academy groups in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in developing good practice in off-site visits, outdoor learning and learning outside the classroom. Post-Step 4 information is given here.

Out-of-school trips and visits

Government advice notes that there are two main types of trips.

The first, routine visits, involve no more than an everyday level of risk — slips and trips — the guidance says, and should be covered by a school’s existing policies and procedures. These visits need little extra planning beyond the educational aspect of a trip and can be considered as lessons in a different classroom.

The second type covers trips that need a risk assessment and extra planning due to factors such as the distance from school, type of activity, location, or the need for staff with specialist skills, plus trips that need a risk assessment and extra planning which may not be covered by current policies.

In many instances, a review of current plans or arrangements that were successful on previous trips will be sufficient. However, other trips may need additional risk assessments, detailed planning and informed approval of headteachers or governing boards.

It is important that staff tasked with this role have the skills, status and competency necessary to understand the risks involved and are familiar with proposed activities, the guidance adds.

Written consent from parents is needed for nursery age children; above this age there is no need for consent on most trips, with the caveat that it is good practice to let parents know what is happening. Written consent is only needed for trips with a high level of risk assessment outside school hours.

More physical

Adventure activities that include caving, climbing, trekking, and water sports need special consideration. Schools can use outside organisations to provide activities. However, they must check that these have appropriate safety standards and liability insurances.

The Council for Learning Outside the Classroom (LOtC) awards Quality Badges to organisations that meet its high standards.

Where organisations do not hold the LOtC badge, checks may be made that they have appropriate arrangements for insurance; legal requirements; H&S and emergency policies and risk assessments; control measures; vehicle use; staff competencies; safeguards; accommodation; sub-contracting arrangements; and licenses.

Schools should also appoint educational visit coordinators with appropriate training, a role that often falls to headteachers. Coordinators must be experienced leaders with the status to guide staff in working practices, confidence in assessing the ability of staff and outsource activity advisors, and able to advise headteachers and governors.

Working with third-party providers

Research has shown that travel helps children to become more independent, experience new cultures, and bond with classmates. Parents tend to value itineraries with strong educational content that are also enjoyable, interactive and practical.

The School Travel Forum is a not-for-profit organisation of school tour operators that promotes good practice and safety in school travel. School Travel Forum members adhere to a Code of Practice and Safety Management Standards.

Given the disruption to international travel and transport, foreign visits may not be on the agenda for a while. However, early planning is vital for all successful visits and specialist providers can help. In addition to normal health and safety rules, they can offer expert advice on the paperwork involved, risk minimisation and support from parents.

Asking the right safety questions

The general advice is to start planning 12 months in advance, or 18 months for longer trips to more exotic destinations. The goals should be made clear to everyone, including tour operators. These might typically focus on key curriculum areas or combine cross-curricular subjects. The key aim could be simply to meet a budget.

One of the advantages of working with professional tour operators is that they can provide 24/7 support in emergency situations — such as delays, strikes, sickness and extreme weather — to overcome problems and ensure smooth trips.

Importantly, it is recommended to ask tour operators whether they are audited regularly for safety standards, can offer a 24-hour helpline, and have prior experience of specific emergency situations with accompanying testimonials from customers.

Legal fears

A key barrier to successful trips is a fear of legal action and unfortunate events. An operator’s competence and transparency in maintaining health and safety standards are particularly important. Insurance policies often offer minimum cover; a school’s own travel insurance may be preferable.

A hard-hit generation

Young people, it is generally acknowledged, have to date suffered extensively during the Covid-19 pandemic. Balancing remaining risks reasonably and taking well-considered steps to repair as far as possible the collateral damage caused by 16 months of disrupted education is a major challenge.

Recent surveys show that many are acutely worried about their immediate futures, mental welfare, breadth of their education, plus long-term career and employment prospects. Typical responses are that they see themselves ‘a problem side-lined to be dealt with later’, are ‘the lowest priority of governments’, and have been ‘sacrificed’ with little financial support.

Statistics indicate that some 64% of young people in Europe may now be suffering from depression at a key point in their lives, up from 15% before the pandemic crisis. During this time they feel they have gained ‘no experience or human capital’.

Another concern is that even with exemplary teachers, online learning is a poor experience that is compromising the future quality of university and college experiences and qualifications needed to compete in tough future working environments. A further criticism is that help and support to cope with the psychological effects of the extended pandemic has been hard to find.

Hopefully, good sporting events, visits and trips will help to alleviate many of these deeply embedded problems.