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Association for Science Education (ASE) Annual Conference, Liverpool University, 5th January 2012

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair

Good morning everyone, and thank you for the invitation to speak at your conference today.  Those of you who have had the chance to read the speakers biographic details in the programme will know that science and technology run in my blood, and I'm a passionate advocate of exciting school science, so speaking here today is an absolute pleasure. For those of you who have not yet read the biog details, here is a more graphical demonstration of my interest in the subject:

I'm very conscious about the timing of this conference - at the very start of the new year.  This is a traditional time for making resolutions that can often flounder very quickly when we get back into our schools and offices and reality starts to bite.  Well I think we are actually on the cusp of a sea change at the moment and there has never been a better time to make practical experimentation and field studies happen, so I want to use my speech to develop that theme and encourage some bold additional new year's resolutions that you can take away with you.  But before that let me first give you a few headlines from 2011 to set the scene and put my further remarks into context.

I want to assure you that HSE recognises the educational and personal development benefits that science experiments and field trips provide for pupils. It is the practical hands on experience in science lessons which inspire young people to go on to become scientists and engineers. HSE itself employs a considerable number of scientists and our policy positions are underpinned by a science base.  HSE fully supports the economic necessity of properly preparing Great Britain’s future workforce for an age so dependent on technology, and the role that science and technology should play in GB’s future economic growth.

HSE believes there is no reason why health and safety should stop schools carrying out science experiments or field trips.  On the contrary, we see the proper integration of health and safety into the overall delivery of the curriculum as being both natural and good teaching practice.  It helps children appreciate hazards and risks, and learn how to manage them – all that is required in most cases are a few sensible precautions.

In 2009 HSE launched its new strategy – Health and Safety for Great Britain in the 21st Century. The overriding mission of the Strategy was to prevent death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities, but it also recognised the need to tackle the increased risk aversion in society as a whole and health and safety increasingly being used as a convenient excuse for not doing a whole host of activities.  One goal of the strategy was to focus on the core aims of health and safety and by doing so help distinguish between real health and safety and trivial or ill-informed criticism.

Because I think this aspect is so important, I have personally led HSE’s efforts to tackle over zealous approaches to health and safety in education.  I may have only set fire to my hands once – as you’ve already seen – but I have constantly challenged stories in the media to put the record straight, and supported organisations and individuals in their efforts to bring science to life through practical experiments and field study.  I think these actions are essential to help encourage schools to inspire and motivate the next generation of scientists and engineers, and widen children’s understanding of risk.

Some schools and teachers have become convinced that health and safety law requires them to apply overly bureaucratic controls that prevent them running dynamic science lessons. This is partly a response to sensational media stories - but also a basic misunderstanding of the expectations placed upon schools and teachers under health and safety legislation, and concerns about insurance requirements and fears of teachers being sued if a child is injured - so let us look for some more compelling evidence to explain what the reality is.

As I've already mentioned, last year the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published its report into 'Practical experiments in school science lessons and science field trips'. It was a direct response to the perception that health and safety concerns have been preventing 'hands on' experience. The report, therefore, focused on what schools need to do to overcome the perceived and real barriers to providing high quality practical fieldwork and fieldtrips as part of science education.

The Committee concluded that both practical lessons and learning outside the classroom are essential contributors to good quality science education - no surprises there. But they also found there to be no convincing evidence that health and safety legislation itself prevents this from happening.

In fact, the Committee found instances where it believed “health and safety” might be being used as a convenient excuse for avoiding practicals and work outside the classroom. The Government's response to the report was published on 23 November and these actions are wide ranging.  HSE welcomes the opportunity to build on this report; in particular, by further helping teachers and schools to understand how the law applies to educational activities.

A further opportunity to find evidence came with the publication of the Lofstedt Review.  In March last year the Minister for Employment, Chris Grayling, announced the Government's decision to set up an independent review of health and safety legislation.  The review panel, chaired by Professor Ragnar Lofstedt, published its findings in November 2011 in the report: Reclaiming health and safety for all.  The review focused specifically on the scope for reducing the burden of health and safety legislation, while maintaining the progress that had been made in terms of health and safety outcomes.  One of the report’s headline findings was that one of the main problems lies less with the legislation itself and more with the way the legislation is interpreted and applied.

Professor Löfstedt's insightful report will go a long way to refocusing health and safety in Great Britain on those things that matter - supporting those who want to do the right thing and reducing rates of work-related death, injury and ill health.  HSE welcome these reforms because they are good for workers and employers but also for the significant contribution they will make to restoring the rightful reputation of real health and safety.

The report makes recommendations for simplifying and streamlining the stock of regulations, focusing enforcement on higher risk businesses, clarifying requirements, and rebalancing the civil litigation system – these are all practical, positive steps.

The Lofstedt report acknowledges that a significant proportion of the stories that appear in the media about health and safety relate to schools or other non-work activities where there may be some concern about public safety.  Professor Lofstedt makes clear that care must be taken to ensure that health and safety legislation does not prevent children from being exposed to new or exciting activities that contribute to their education. The cause of the problems he believes are excessive paperwork and unnecessary precaution being taken on health and safety grounds.

Lofstedt also acknowledges that much has been done as the result of the earlier, Lord Young authored report: Common Sense; Common Safety to help schools understand how to apply legislation more easily, and to tackle the myths. Lofstedt does not call for specific action in schools - but acknowledges that a range of actions across all workplaces will further help the way that legislation is applied in schools.

But we need to do more to tackle the perceptions and make sure that every school is getting the balance right. Over the last year we have had much success but this is just a starting point and there’s a great deal more to do.  In taking forward HSE’s part of the Common Sense; Common Safety recommendations, we worked with the Department for Education on its review of guidance - with the aim of making it simpler and clearer for schools to know what the law actually requires and to meet those requirements without lowering standards. Most schools have good health and safety management arrangements in place that reflect sound management practices common across many other public and private sector organisations.  Support though to individual schools remains important. This means there is space for other organisations and groups, such as ASE, to take the agenda forward by providing advice and guidance on practical and innovative approaches that focus on the things that really matter and empower schools and teachers.

Our strategy for Health and Safety in Great Britain in the 21st Century is still very much our route map and it remains vitally important that everyone - and this means you - takes up their role to be part of the solution.  Those that are teaching science in innovative and well managed ways need to share their skills, experiences, ideas and successes with others to demonstrate to all that health and safety legislation is not there to constrain learning.

Reasonable practicability has been and remains a HSE guiding principle - a concept so positively endorsed by Lofstedt. In education where risks are low that amounts to application of common sense.  What this means is that you need to consider what really matters and to focus on that. Paperwork and bureaucracy never saved anyone’s life - but practical assessment of risks and where necessary setting out procedures clearly and concisely will be essential.

Now some of you may be thinking: is HSE going to follow this through?  What will happen if an experiment goes wrong?  Let me be clear on this.  In July last year, we published a high-level statement setting out our position on applying health and safety legislation to school trips.  We did not sit on the fence, as we wanted to encourage schools and their staff to feel empowered. The statement makes clear that HSE wishes to encourage all schools and Local Authorities to remove wasteful bureaucracy imposed on those involved in visits and activities - so that the focus is on managing the real risks and going ahead with the activity not on generating paperwork.

We have made it clear that HSE’s primary interest is real risks arising from serious breaches of the law and that any HSE investigations are targeted at these issues.  This statement is about shifting the perceptions nearer the reality - if you ignore or fail to take sensible precautions, or act irresponsibly then of course HSE may become involved.  The statement applies directly to any science field trips you organise and I would encourage you to read it and use the messages to support your work.

Those messages in our high-level statement can be read across to wider school activities - so please use the statement to root your own views of health and safety in school science in reality - not in myths.  It is you who are the experts in teaching - and in science - I want to encourage you to make sure your department, school, and local authority is supporting you in delivering innovative science education - so please use our high-level statement to help you.

Future generations need to learn about handling and managing risk as part of their education – especially if they are going to become scientists or engineers. Good leadership, involvement of staff, partnership with others, innovation and sharing of good practice and sensible risk management is what we need to see to achieve our priorities – not unnecessary paperwork, unfounded perceptions and lessons that deprive pupils of the thrill of good practical experience of science.

Let’s consider another reality - what happens when things go wrong. Over the five year period 2005/6 to 2009/10 HSE took 20 prosecutions in the primary, secondary and vocational sectors. The majority of these involved a failure to manage risks to staff during maintenance activities. Four of the prosecutions related to the safety of pupils in classrooms or on school trips - none of these involved school science.

However, this does not mean there are no risks in school science. More recently, HSE investigated a serious incident where two members of staff were hurt and seven students were taken to Hospital. HSE found evidence that the incident resulted from a major diversion from established safe practice.  As you would anticipate in such cases HSE has to investigate the actions of the teaching staff. In this case HSE has prosecuted the Local Authority concerned. Such serious incidents are rare, however.

Finally, let me reinforce some key points:

Updated 2012-01-13