This website uses non-intrusive cookies to improve your user experience. You can visit our cookie privacy page for more information.

Education Visits Coordinator Conference speech – 11 November 2014

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair

Learning about risk – an essential life skill

Good morning and thank you for inviting me here to the second annual Education Visits Coordinator Conference. I am very pleased to be here because I believe passionately that children need to learn outside the classroom as well as in it. Many successful school visits take place each year, and we all want to build on that.

And the more we can demonstrate that organising activities outside the classroom need not be daunting, the more often they will be possible.

Think back to your school days – what events spring to mind? I imagine that high on the list are day trips, field work, educational holidays and other outdoor learning activities. I can still recall that my first trips abroad were school trips and along with visits to the zoo and nature walks they helped bring the curriculum to life. And they still do for pupils today; providing deeper subject learning, building self-confidence and helping children connect classroom learning with the real world.

They also help pupils develop their risk awareness, preparing them for their future working lives.

We need to ensure these enriching experiences are made widely available to the people who will form tomorrow’s workforce and tomorrow’s leaders.

Whether it is a visit to a museum, a trip to the countryside or challenging and adventurous activities, HSE wants to make sure that mistaken and unfounded health and safety concerns do not create obstacles that prevent them from happening.

So if we all recognise and recall the value of these experiences from our own childhood, our children’s and – in your case – also from pupils you have taught, why is there sometimes a perception that organising outdoor activities is daunting and not worth the hassle?

It is not down to the health and safety system - that is for sure. 40 years on from the creation of the Health and Safety at Work Act, the health and safety system remains, fundamentally, fit for purpose. This is because health and safety law in Great Britain has an enduring principle – that those who create risks are best placed to control them, and that they should do so in a reasonable and sensible way. The Act (HSWA) and regulations focus on the outcomes that need to be achieved not rules and paperwork – they are designed to enable activities to take place not to stop them.

You are probably aware that various reviews of health and safety have taken place in recent years. I am pleased to report that none of them has found reason to question the fundamentals of HSE’s role or how it operates. But we recognise that we must always strive to do better. And the reviews have made recommendations to improve the system further, primarily to make it as straightforward and easy as possible for dutyholders to successfully recognise and deliver what is needed.

Just to mention a couple of the recommendations that HSE is implementing, we are simplifying and consolidating the large amount of regulation which has built up over time – this will benefit everyone.

And we are tackling over-interpretation of legal requirements – whether caused through misunderstanding or lack of clarity in guidance.

This is where I think the issues lie in your line of work. Misunderstandings that can be caused by a number of issues, including frustrations about paperwork, fears of prosecution if something goes wrong and the belief that a teacher will be personally sued if a child is injured.

Well I’m not here to give false promises; I cannot guarantee you that those things won’t happen - it is never possible to eliminate the risk of prosecution entirely. However, by doing what is reasonable and sensible, by understanding and striking the right balance, there is no reason why you or your staff should fear organising these activities. The legal test is whether or not you did what was reasonable, not whether you thought of every possible thing that could go wrong right down to the minutiae.

That is one of the key reasons that HSE produced a high-level statement to encourage schools and local authorities to remove wasteful bureaucracy imposed on people organising these activities. I encourage you to look over it and see if there is anything more that needs to be done for your school.

It really does not need to be daunting or difficult. And if it isn’t you that needs to be persuaded - and given your jobs I hope you don’t! - then the package of information and guidance HSE has on this subject, as well as information available from other authoritative sources, should be a catalyst for you to win over those who need to be convinced or won over.

For example, when developing outdoor learning opportunities it is important that the focus is on controlling real risks, it’s not about eliminating all risks. Assessments for trivial risks are not required. Proportionate systems should be in place, so that activities that present lower risk are quick and easy to organise. Higher risk activities should be properly planned and assessed.

As the high level statement says, 'Well-managed school trips and outdoor activities are great for children. Children won’t learn about risk if they're wrapped in cotton wool.’

The statement, and other supporting material from HSE, can help you understand what striking the right balance means, and how you can gauge whether you are doing that. As well as focussing on real risks you need to make sure that anyone involved in planning and running trips understands their role. They need to be properly supported - so that staff can readily check if they have taken sufficient precautions or whether they should do more. And they need to be competent at the tasks they are assigned. This should ensure that real risks can be managed during the trip and learning opportunities can be experienced to the full.

What should you and other staff within your schools be able to expect when considering a visit or outdoor activity? – To quote from the high level statement ‘Teachers should expect their schools to have procedures that encourage participation, are proportionate to the level of risk and avoid bureaucracy.’ If you are at all unsure whether that expectation is met in your school, now is the time to act.

It is also important that if other organisations are involved in a trip, such as outdoor education centres or adventure travel agents, the school should also take account of their assessments and procedures and ensure that communications with them are clear.

And although I am naturally focusing on HSE’s role and support materials for outdoor activities, I am sure you are all aware that there are other sources of support and authoritative information available, such as from the Department for Education and the National Guidance from the Outdoor Education Advisors Panel (OEAP), whom you will be hearing from later today.

HSE has also provided information about what NOT striking the right balance looks like, so that you know what to avoid. This includes indicators such as:

Striking the right balance does not mean that all risks must be eliminated; BUT it also does not mean that mistakes and accidents cannot happen.

Indeed, accidents and mistakes may happen on school trips – but the fear of prosecution has been blown out of all proportion.

So what happens if something does go wrong?

Following fatal accidents, HSE works with the police and others; if an incident on a school trip leads to the death or serious injury of a pupil, HSE will normally investigate. Most serious accidents on school trips involve underlying management failures and HSE always looks for these underlying causes. HSE does not investigate incidents in response to civil claims and has no influence on the levels and types of civil claims for compensation that may be made against schools or individual teachers - but I can tell you that other parts of Government have been taking steps to discourage the “blame culture” which leads to many civil claims.

HSE has brought prosecutions in rare cases where there was evidence of recklessness or a clear failure to follow sensible precautions. However, it is important that schools and their staff do not interpret this as meaning that to avoid prosecution by HSE they must eliminate even the most trivial risks.

HSE’s primary interest is in real risks arising from serious breaches of the law, and any investigations are targeted at these issues.

Schools and their staff are expected to deal with risk responsibly and sensibly. If things do go wrong during a trip, provided sensible and proportionate steps have been taken, it is highly unlikely that there would be any breach of health and safety law involved, or that it would be in the public interest for HSE to bring a prosecution.

OK I think I have given you enough classroom theory for now. Let’s get outside - metaphorically speaking – no need for your coats - and cover some examples.

The good, the bad and tragically, on the rare occasions it happens, the ugly.

Although fatalities and serious accidents on school trips are rare, they can seem more prevalent due to high media interest. But things can go wrong.

There was the tragic death of four pupils in a canoeing accident at Lyme Bay in 1993; this in part led to the creation of the Adventure Activities Licensing Regulations and the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority (AALA).

The loss of schoolboy Max Palmer who died while ‘plunge pooling’ during an activity weekend at Glenridding Beck in 2002. AALA produced a case study on the incident that led to Max’s death, and I urge you all to read it. It covers what happened and makes comments and recommendations to help users identify good practice. It also poses questions to ask yourself for anybody planning and organising an adventure activity trip.

No-one can afford to be complacent, in order to avoid such tragedies happening again.

There is a dedicated section on the web site for adventure activity licensing here.

HSE’s Myth Busters deals with the ‘bad’. HSE set up the Myth Busters Challenge Panel in 2012 to address instances where members of the public believe they have been on the receiving end of mystifying or over-the-top decisions made in the name of ‘health and safety’.  The Panel publishes its conclusions on HSE’s website and seeks to set the record straight, making it clear where health and safety has been misrepresented, or used as a catch all reason for stopping activities.  Well over 300 cases have been published to date, including some relating to school trips.

For instance, a Local authority withdrew a facility for staff to bring families on school trips – the Panel found that there are no regulations in place which ban schools from allowing spouses and children to join teachers and school staff on trips. The decision to do so was based on an overly cautious interpretation of guidance on health and safety and possible safeguarding.

And a school informed a pupil when she took a flask on a school trip that it had a no hot drink policy ‘due to health and safety’. But health and safety legislation does not prevent children from having hot food or drink. This is an example where if schools choose to put such rules in place they should be communicated and explained to parents, particularly if different on trips than in school, rather than spuriously blamed on ‘health and safety’.

There are parallels with a recent case where primary school staff were asked not to take any drinks onto the playground during breaks, to safeguard the children, on highly improbably grounds including the possibility of a child suffering an allergic reaction to a teacher’s drink!

I could go on and mention the banning of frilly socks or ‘dangerous’ - in inverted commas - footballs, but please take a look at them on our website.

If schools make decisions like that within their own premises, it is hard to imagine that trips and activities away from the school would be planned sensibly.

These myths bring us to where safety on school trips and outdoor activities fits within the overall ethos of how a school manages health and safety. As highlighted in the example of teachers banned from taking drinks into the playground, we are far less likely to see sensibly managed trips if the school isn’t getting the basics right on health and safety.

So at the start of this school year, HSE launched new web-based guidance designed to support school leaders to strike the right balance and encourage them to avoid being risk averse. ‘Sensible health and safety management in schools.’

It contains information on how to lead on the subject; the different roles for the employer, the governing body, the head teacher, other school leaders and members of staff. It covers topics I have highlighted to you, including getting the balance right, ‘is it really health and safety?’ and other useful resources.

I believe education is about preparing pupils to get the most out of life, and the only way they can do that is to face up to risks and learn how to handle them – not avoid them.

And if the principles in our guidance are followed, other memorable and exciting activities to enhance school children’s learning experiences can be created without even leaving the classroom.

I have focussed mainly on outdoor activities but as educators you will all be aware there are many opportunities for interesting and exciting activities to take place within the school as well. Practical science lessons for example – no doubt some of you thought of these when I asked what memories you recall of school days. As a scientist by trade, this is an issue I am particularly passionate about, ensuring that schools realise the importance of practical science lessons in order to inspire children to take up the subjects at GCSE, A level and beyond - ultimately to a career. They don’t learn about science just through reading; it’s about experiments and other practical activities too.

This ties in closely with an industry-led campaign which entered a new phase earlier this week. The Your Life campaign is a three-year campaign, to ensure the UK has the maths and science skills it needs to succeed in a competitive global economy. It is doing this by inspiring young people to study maths and physics as a gateway to exciting and wide-ranging careers; and by helping employers recruit and retain talent, particularly women.  

So this is a great opportunity for me to give the campaign my full backing, and talk about how sensible health and safety can help make science inspiring in schools.

First, here is an illustration of how not to teach practical science in schools.

Slide of Nov 2009 Myth of the month

Slide of Nov 2009 Myth of the month

We can move on from the ugly and the bad examples of managing health and safety for school activities, to ‘the good’ – I might be slightly biased about the following clip but let’s see how practical science experiments can be used to inspire.

Leaving the lab and heading back to the great outdoors, HSE has produced a range of case studies to illustrate how school visits can be planned and delivered effectively, to encourage others to follow suit.

These include places that might sound challenging to visit. For instance, several schools in Argyle and Bute have taken nine to 13 year old pupils on trips to a local woodland to learn about topics including biodiversity and forestry. They then extended this approach by organising trips to a sawmill to see what happens to the trees next and what uses it is destined for.

The trip provided pupils with an insight into a busy factory environment with a wide range of powerful machinery, which also gave them the opportunity to consider the safety issues involved in visiting an important local industry.

The case study goes on to cover how the visit was planned and managed.

The teachers worked with the sawmill staff to explore the learning potential, identify possible problems and develop solutions. They ensured that the children gained prior understanding of the risks, and that parents were consulted in order to be able to give their consent.

Involving pupils in this way, in the planning as well as the activity itself, can be a valuable way of educating them about risk – if you aren’t doing it already, why not involve the pupils in developing the risk assessment? This will help them to understand the nature of significant risks and how they can be managed – and to develop a sense of proportion about real risk versus trivia.

And it’s not just about involving the pupils; parents and guardians need to be educated in how outdoor activities are managed, in order to manage their expectations and allowing them to take responsibility for making an informed decision about their child’s involvement.

My daughters went to school here in Oxfordshire. They were fortunate to have the opportunity to go on geography field trips, outdoor adventure activities, foreign exchange visits and ski trips. The school held meetings with parents ahead of major trips in order to explain how they were being organised and what was being done to manage risks. However, the school was clear about what risks could not be eliminated and what parents needed to be prepared for. So it was made clear that the decisions about whether to allow my children to participate involved taking personal responsibility on my part as well as my daughters to accept the risks involved.

Do take a look at the case studies on HSE’s website please; they cover organising a range of activities, from the routine to the uncommon.

So, we have covered theory and practice; the good, the bad and the ugly. How can you tell if you are doing too much, too little, or getting things just right?

The Goldilocks approach - as Geoff Cox, Head of HSE’s Public Services Sector, put it - when launching the new guidance.

Let’s consider how we can recognise the differences, starting of course with getting things right, which is sensible health and safety management.

When we have sensible health and safety management:

What does going beyond sensible management look like?

When we go beyond sensible health and safety management:

What does not doing enough look like?

Failing to reach a sensible balance.

When we fail to demonstrate sensible health and safety management:

When sensible health and safety management is neglected, the consequences can be severe, as we have heard in the tragic cases above. But the overly cautious and restrictive approach is harmful too – important life lessons are not being taught and will only be learned later possibly in much harsher environments with much more serious consequences.

Finally, before the question and answer session which I am looking forward to, I ask that if you, or anyone else involved in planning an outdoor or ‘out of the ordinary’ school activity thinks something can’t be done ‘because of health and safety’, please ensure you challenge that initial thought, because the real answer is very likely to be that it can be done!

Take the Goldilocks test when setting your procedures and planning individual trips. Are you getting it just right?

Thank you for listening and, more importantly, for continuing to provide school children with inspirational activities to participate in. You have HSE’s and my personal support and encouragement for what you do.

Updated 2015-01-07