Thank you for the invitation to speak to you at your conference today. The NASUWT surveys reported in the Safe to Teach document raise some important concerns about health and safety issues and I should say at the outset that both HSE and I take these very seriously. The concerns raised are many and cover a wide range of subjects ranging from working conditions – temperature, cleanliness, hours of work to bullying and site security. Some of these matters will be applicable in nearly all schools and colleges while others are much more likely to be school/ college specific. It therefore follows that in addressing these very real concerns we need to do so in a way that picks out the highest priorities and most common widespread problems first.
In everything we try to do together or working with other bodies, it is important first of all to establish some key principles:
It is clear that we live in a society which is becoming increasingly risk averse – which often manifests itself in people expecting others to remove risk altogether and in looking for someone to blame for failing to have the foresight if something does go wrong. I am firmly of the opinion that the pendulum has swung too far and we now see widespread signs of “health and safety” being used as an excuse for not doing far too many things. Let's be very clear that Health and Safety Regulation exists to put practical measures in place to reduce risk where possible, but is also designed to ensure that people carry on and do their job – whatever it is - not to stop them. This is particularly relevant in your profession where you have a unique and pivotal role to play in teaching future generations about risk and how to deal with it – not how to avoid it altogether. This is a topic I will return to later, but first let us look at the two most serious health and safety issues for teachers in their workplaces today.
Whether you look at the issues of concern in relation to Health and Safety in schools and colleges from the HSE perspective, which is based on the evidence of what we see as the main causes of absence and ill health in the sector, or from the Safe to Teach report, it is clear that by far the biggest issues to be tackled are:
According to a recent survey of local education authorities around 500,000 teacher days were lost last year in Britain due to stress at an estimated cost of £84 million. This is a serious issue for teachers and has a major knock-on impact on children’s learning. Many of us in many professions are expected to work under pressure and we know that doing so can have a positive effect in terms of driving us to succeed and deliver results, but stress occurs when that pressure becomes too great and its effects can be very debilitating, leading to more serious illness and also making it more likely that we will get injured.
It seems obvious to say that because of its serious consequences and often long periods of absence from work, by far the best way to manage stress is to prevent it happening in the first place and that means recognising the early warning signs. There is a good deal of practical advice and support available to help with putting processes in place for early intervention and management – HSE’s management standards for stress, The Teacher Support Network and Worklife Support and the National Wellbeing Programme. But again, there will be those among you who have already worked out what works in practice in your school. I strongly urge you to find ways of sharing those good practices with others. Managing stress is not something that management can do alone, it needs active involvement from all staff to find solutions as well as to identify where there are problems. Clearly in schools it involves dealing with difficult causes of stress including tackling bad behaviour and intimidation. But remember that being involved is important to find the right solutions and in no way removes the legal responsibility from management. HSE gives its full support to workforce involvement in every workplace – schools and colleges are no exception to that.
Slips trips and falls remain the most common cause of major injuries in every workplace – and teaching follows exactly the same pattern – they account for around 40% of all injuries reported to staff. One of the reasons they remain so commonplace is that people fail to recognise the potentially serious consequences which result from a fall – broken bones can often lead to permanent loss of mobility and movement. And because they are not recognised people walk past slipping and tripping hazards – wet or uneven floors, they see potentially dangerous practices – standing on chairs or tables and fail to act until someone does get hurt. The steps required to reduce the level of injury and suffering to teachers from slips trips and falls are pretty straightforward common sense measures and they are things everyone can do, they don’t have to wait for someone else to fix them. If we could do that we would make a huge difference to health and safety in teaching and it would give us the basis to then move on and tackle some of the other key challenges facing us.
Finally I would like to say a few words about the important role you play in teaching future generations to handle risk – not to avoid it. I can imagine that organising and running school trips can create a lot of pressure and sometimes stress. I understand that there are some real concerns about requirements and responsibilities. There are some very unfortunate myths about individual teachers being held liable and even personally prosecuted – but the important thing to note is that they are myths. Teachers are not personally sued and in the very small number of cases where teachers have been prosecuted it has happened because teachers have ignored direct instructions and departed from common sense.
Again, this is an area where we know there is good practice and a significant number of schools continue to include extensive field trips and practical activities and to manage them sensibly and well. We would urge you to share that good practice and we will continue to work with other government departments including DCSF to provide better advice on what is actually required – and what is not. 30-40page risk assessments rarely add to the safety of a trip – something that is fit for purpose is more likely to be 3-4 pages long – and in the best cases of all which we are aware of, students themselves have been actively involved as part of the classroom preparation process in carrying out the risk assessment ahead of the trip.
I have to say that the NASUWT policy on school trips is less than encouraging/enabling to say the least. I believe very strongly that a more positive approach to school trips is vital – it is an essential part of every child’s education and by not finding a way to make them happen we are failing in our duty to prepare them for life – which will always contain risks that they have to face and deal with sensibly.
So, in conclusion, my message is one of common sense and proportionality in approaching health and safety. Focus on the real risks and those that can be managed – stress and slips trips and falls. Learn from each other and find practical solutions – reams of paperwork is rarely the way to effective safety management. Equally we need to find ways to help the next generation learn about risk – not shield them from it. That needs us all to work together to find ways of making school trips the important part of every child’s education which they should be.