Good morning and thank you for inviting me to your conference today. I can see that your Association must have extremely productive working relationships with HSE [or possibly really good lunches] as you’ve had HSE speakers here for at least the last 3 years! I’m more than pleased to extend that to four years, however, as I’m personally committed to promoting all things educational - and particularly to promoting the inspirational teaching of science through practice and dealing with risk.
We sometimes hear employers say that young people nowadays lack common sense. The Oxford dictionary defines common sense as “the ability to think about things in a practical way and make sensible decisions”. Another definition is “the basic level of practical knowledge and judgement that we need to live in a reasonable and safe way”.
We are not born with common sense. It comes from experiencing the world around us. It is up to us as a society to develop and nurture common sense in our young people. We can start this at an early age by exposing them to a wide range of experiences and allowing them to face challenges so that they can begin to understand the possible outcomes. Increasingly today we also face the challenge of trying to remind parents of young people about the dangers of being over protective.
I’d therefore like to start by reminding you of some of HSE’s key messages around sensible and proportionate risk management – which apply to schools in exactly the same way as they do everywhere else - and giving you my own personal take on the kind of problems they are intended to address. I’d also like to mention some of the work we’ve been doing with DfE, and end by speaking about change and continuity within HSE as a regulator.
Sensible risk management is certainly about ensuring that workers and the public (or staff and students in your case) are properly protected, but it’s also about enabling innovation and learning in schools and in work. Sensible risk management is about ensuring that those who create risks manage them responsibly, but it’s also about balancing benefits and risks for the overall benefit to society.
What is it NOT? It’s not about generating useless paperwork; it’s not about creating a totally risk-free society; it’s not about exaggerating trivial risks and it’s not about stopping important recreational or learning activities where the risks are properly managed. As we emphasise on our education website pages – it’s all about the Goldilocks test – not too much, not too little, but just the right balance.
Now perhaps it’s just me, or perhaps it just goes with the turf, but barely a week goes by without me having to confront somebody quoting ‘elf ‘n’ safety in a way that isn’t at all sensible – and doesn’t help anyone learn about managing risks properly. I hope you will have heard of HSE’s myth buster panel, and well over 300 cases have been published to date, with about 20% relating to children. Few of these myths are based on any proper understanding of health and safety law, and ‘rules’ are being made up all over the country on the basis of perceptions and myths…… and largely on whatever happens to be convenient at the time. So let me just point to some of the markers that HSE has planted to outline where we think the balance lies in relation to educational issues:
HSE’s evidence to the Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology in 2011 started by asserting that HSE is very pro-science, that we employ large numbers of science graduates (including in research roles) and that we pride ourselves on the scientific evidence base that underpins our policy making. We work actively with science bodies such as the Association for Science Education, and the schools science and design and technology support services CLEAPSS and its Scottish equivalent SSERC, to make science safe whilst still being stimulating and engaging. The Select Committee supported HSE’s view that health and safety legislation is not a barrier to science education.
This is another example where the fear of potential workplace hazards can create a risk-averse culture which overrides a sensible approach. As a result, work experience opportunities were becoming harder to find, and were not properly reflecting the breadth of working lives that some students wanted to experience. The more sensible approach developed by HSE and others in Government sought to set proportionate checks for the type of work involved, and to give due recognition to the risk management processes adopted by responsible employers. There is no need and no requirement for a separate risk assessment for every work placement.
The dead hand of bureaucracy and risk aversion also had the potential to spoil school trips, the traditionally memorable highlights of the school year. In reality this is typically driven by fear of compensation claims and teachers’ unfounded concerns about personal litigation. In this case HSE posted a statement of policy together with several case studies on our website to make clear our belief that health and safety law did not preclude valuable learning outside of the classroom. I have followed this up personally with presentations to educational visit co-ordinators and other conferences over the past couple of years.
This may seem very far from health and safety legislation, but you’d be surprised how far concerns spread. HSE understands that wrapping children up in cotton wool achieves nothing. Children who grow up unable to anticipate and deal with risk can lack self-confidence and may be less prepared to make decisions as adults. Stifling play can have negative consequences. At HSE we will continue to play our part in dispelling these myths and have published a High Level Statement in collaboration with the Play Safety Forum, which I urge you to read if you haven’t already.
This isn’t a one way street, however, and we must also remember that sensible risk management includes the proper protection of staff and students where real risks do exist. I’ll take asbestos as a case in point. HSE’s statistically structured surveys of schools outside of Local Authority control in 2010/11 and 2013/14 showed some persistent failings in schools’ management arrangements. There was improvement between the two surveys, 17% notices were served in the first and 13% in the second. But 13% was still too high a number for a well-publicised hazardous material such as asbestos – and schools can have no excuses, and will receive no sympathy, for getting this wrong.
I have mentioned several of the bodies that HSE regularly works with. HSE recognises where its own strengths lie, but it also recognises the strengths of others in terms of knowledge, contacts and being nationally recognised authorities. We therefore seek to work in partnership with others, and provide inputs to their publications.
I’d like to draw attention to two particular examples of this, both by the DfE. ‘The Management of Asbestos in Schools’ review of DfE’s own policy was published in March this year. It was based on ‘call for evidence’ submissions from stakeholders and extensive inputs from HSE and others, and subsequent advice and guidance will flow from the review in due course. The second is the soon to be published DfE advice to schools on health and safety in general. This is very modern looking guidance, short, succinct and with the ‘sensible risk’ message running through it like a golden thread. DfE is fully signed up to HSE’s sensible risk messages, and that should give you added reassurance.
There is more to be done, however, and developing better links with Ofsted and The Independent Schools Inspectorate is very much on our radar. Indeed I will be meeting the Ofsted National Director of Education on Monday next week to ensure we are all singing from the same hymn sheet.
I’d like to end by saying a few words about what is happening in HSE at the moment. HSE celebrated its 40th anniversary earlier this year. It’s a tribute to the far sightedness of the system’s structure that it has been able to adapt with the times and help deliver improved health and safety outcomes for four decades – fewer deaths, injuries and less ill health, with the huge benefits that brings - people being able to go home safe after a day’s work and businesses and the economy as a whole facing less disruption and loss of productivity. Great Britain’s record in health and safety is world class, but we must continue to adapt.
Moving with the times, reducing red tape and helping ensure health and safety brings benefits rather than burdens has helped keep the system we have in Great Britain fit for purpose. We are not complacent though and, as with any successful organisation, HSE constantly seeks to improve and do things better.Recommendations from reviews have been taken forward, including:
That isn’t a euphemism for lowering of standards, because we all benefit from fewer health and safety incidents occurring – no one wants to see standards decline. But I am a great believer that if you make something easy to understand and do, people are more likely to do it. That principle lies behind HSE’s drive over recent years to modernise and simplify regulations and guidance.
Modernisation can never be a finite task and we are also refreshing the overall strategy for the whole Health and Safety system. The refreshed strategy will include the need to gain greater buy-in to the positive, enabling effect that comes from managing risks proportionately, allowing students to learn about risk in a practical and engaging way, and not wrapping them in cotton wool. I’m sure that chimes with your agenda. I would hope that your Association will show visible support for HSE’s new strategy by creating that enabling environment where young people learn about risk from experience – not from what they read in the Daily Mail!