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Inside Government event - A Common Sense Approach to Health and Safety in Schools: Keeping Children and Staff Safe - Tuesday, 25th September 2012

Judith Hackitt CBE FREng, HSE Chair

Working Across Sectors to Create a Safe and Happy School Environment

Good afternoon and firstly thank you to the organisers for inviting me to speak here today. I hope that you have enjoyed the morning sessions and that they have provided some useful food-for-thought about how you can help to shape the future of health and safety in schools.

Some of you here today will know that I'm passionate about science and that I believe that education should be exciting and engaging. You may also know I am passionate about the importance of real health and safety - making sure that risks are managed proportionately and sensibly.

I believe that health and safety should not prevent children from having opportunities to learn and develop skills. I've been quoted in a personal capacity on some educational issues - around science experiments and home chemistry sets for instance. However, today I'd like to talk about some of the work that the Health and Safety Executive has been doing to ensure that children are kept safe without being wrapped in cotton wool and that those of you working in schools are not tangled up in bureaucracy.

By now, I am sure that you are all familiar with the Löfstedt report and the view that, problems with health and safety regulation arise when, "requirements are misunderstood and applied inappropriately". HSE has long held the view that good health and safety is about keeping things simple, being proportionate and focussing on real risks. We have been and are continuing to simplify our guidance to ensure that it is easy to understand and that schools are able to meet the legal requirements placed on them.

The experience that young people have at school is so important in developing and challenging our future adult generations – we need their experience to be rich and exciting and to expose them to situations where they can think for themselves, make decisions and act on them.

Schools should focus their efforts on enabling activities to take place – most things can be done with an adequate degree of safety when the risks are managed sensibly. I am sure that people involved in the education system would much rather that exciting learning experiences took place and were not prevented. So we all need to work together to make sure children are able to get enriching experiences at school that they can learn from. We can enable things to happen by employing a simple common sense approach.

A common sense approach is where proportionate action is taken to control the risks of whatever activity is due to take place. Earlier this year I visited a school where a history lesson involving making and firing catapults was taking place. Llew Davies, a Pride of Britain award winner and teacher at Ysgol Cae Top in Bangor was encouraging his primary school class to get stuck in. There were no hard hats, goggles, high-viz or multi-page risk assessments in sight. Llew's safety briefing or "proportionate action", involved asking his pupils if they thought standing in front of a catapult about to be fired was the best idea. They quickly re-positioned themselves! This experience was valuable, the children thought for themselves and made the right decision and their teacher helped guide and encourage them. I think that they will all remember the experience and its hidden health and safety lesson.

Llew is a teacher who really gets the fact that health and safety is not a barrier to providing an exciting education. His other lessons have included racing office chairs in the gym to learn about velocity and building volcanoes and mock Formula One cars.

Where risks are created those running the activity have a duty to manage them responsibly and staff must exercise responsibility. However, no-one is required to eliminate risk – if the risk is removed completely the activity will also very likely be stopped. We don't want to encourage the creation of useless mountains of paperwork or to exaggerate risks. A common sense approach enables innovation and learning – it doesn't stifle them.

I hope we would all agree that work experience is a valuable way of facilitating the transition from school to adult working life. Here is an area where we need to avoid over-interpretation of what is required – most employers will have already conducted a risk assessment for all of their activities – provided that they have considered young and vulnerable people as part of their own risk assessments – which they should have done- there is no need for a separate risk assessment to be carried out for work experience students.

Teachers and Local Authorities, if they need to see a risk assessment, should just ask for a copy of what already exists, not present would be employers with additional paperwork.

Sensible leadership is important so staff understand where health and safety fits in to these other risk management issues. In turn staff need to be involved in discussions about managing risks and activities, especially when they are responsible for leading them. If part of the problem is perceived to be over protective parents, then they need to be brought into this debate about what is proportionate as well.

Now let me talk briefly about the process of finding that all important balance between giving children valuable learning experiences while proportionately and sensibly managing risks. Again, this comes back to adopting a common sense approach.

Striking the right balance means that:

We need to avoid overly risk averse behaviour that prevents activities from taking place and means that:

The High Level Statement on school trips sets out how schools can achieve a balance between ensuring valuable learning experiences take place and managing risks.

HSE has also published some real life case studies that have struck the right balance - they can be found on the education pages of our website. We need others to submit their examples of innovative approaches so if you have something to share please do.

HSE is working to simplify its guidance to all industries and sectors. To help schools, we have produced a number of useful guidance documents, tools and simple risk assessments. I have already referred to our website but this is where you will find lots of useful information that will help you to make sure your school meets the legal health and safety requirements that it needs to.

Many parts of the school premises are low risk in nature. HSE's classroom checklist is designed to help schools quickly identify any areas of concern or risks to those using or working in the classroom. You can access the checklist for free on our website.

In other areas attention is needed to ensure the risks remain low - managing asbestos is one such example. The most likely way that asbestos containing materials create a risk in schools is when they are disturbed or damaged, usually through maintenance, repair or construction activities. School caretakers and contractors are a particular group at risk due to the nature of their work. If asbestos is disturbed during such work dust could be released which creates a risk to others in the school. Again, on this issue HSE has produced a free checklist to help schools review their arrangements for managing asbestos safely.

Outside of the school environment, Health and safety legislation is sometimes presented as a reason why certain play and leisure activities undertaken by children and young people should be discouraged. Such decisions are often based on misunderstandings about what the law requires. At the beginning of this month HSE and the Play Safety Forum published a joint high-level statement that gives clear messages tackling these misunderstandings. The statement makes clear that:

Whenever we can HSE works with others to put the record straight. HSE has recently contributed to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology. Following consideration of extensive evidence from many stakeholders, the Committee reported that school science inside and outside the classroom was essential, and that they could find no convincing evidence that health and safety legislation itself prevents this from happening. But that doesn't stop some from using it as an excuse.

The London 2012 Games and the amazing summer of sport we have witnessed in the UK have created a wave of enthusiasm to develop the next generation of athletes and also showing us all what we can do when we put our minds to it. I think that we are making real progress dispelling health and safety myths but the challenge for HSE, schools and education stakeholders is to ensure that new ones do not arise in the area of school sports. The messages in HSE's high-level statement on children's play and leisure apply equally to school sports and physical education. Health and safety legislation require schools to manage the risk from sports activities sensibly – but this does not have to be difficult. In most cases this will involve making sure that equipment is suitable for the pupils involved, that grounds are properly maintained and the right level of supervision for pupils is in place. Managing the risks sensibly means that the schools and relevant teaching staff keep up to date with guidance and standards applicable to the sports that are taught. The National Governing Bodies provide guidance to help schools introduce pupils to their sports, and to help them develop skills progressively and safely.

Because "Health and Safety" is often incorrectly used as a convenient excuse to stop perfectly sensible activities going ahead HSE works hard to draw a clear distinction between real health and safety and the myths. In June last year (2011) to tackle the myths about red tape and prosecution surrounding school trips, HSE published a policy statement. It encouraged all schools and local authorities to remove wasteful bureaucracy imposed on those involved in organising school visits and outdoor learning activities. But, battling myths is not something that is limited to the education sector, if only, the problem has been much wider and excuses that wrongly cite health and safety can be found across almost every sector. This Spring we set up the Myth Busters Challenge Panel to scrutinize decisions made in the name of health and safety.

One such example was the school production that was cancelled because a lighting box needed to be moved (despite being in place for many years) and the operator, also with many years experience, had not attended a ladder training course and therefore not able to use a ladder. The Challenge Panel found that this was "not a proportionate or sensible decision" on a number of counts.It was instead, "an unnecessarily rigid interpretation of working at height regulations." Other Challenge Panel cases that relate to schools include:

Over 50 cases have already been reviewed by the panel – trust me, there have been some interesting ones!

I have been asked to cover the role that HSE will play in replacing the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority. Let me give you a brief update on this. The Westminster Government has currently paused this recommendation. There are concerns about the inconsistency of activities licensed and both Scotland and Wales's Governments have indicated a desire to retain the current licensing regime - the legislation that gives licensing its legal base is devolved.

HSE is due to run a second consultation early next year (2013) to address the various concerns and consider options going forward. Meanwhile the current licensing scheme remains in place. So, activity providers should continue to operate as usual, and ensure they hold a valid license for activities currently in scope of the licensing arrangements.

We have covered a lot of ground in a relatively short time period but you will no doubt have noticed that the theme that runs throughout every element is that the approach should be sensible and proportionate. By taking this approach schools can enable activities to take place and help to prevent the media myths we too often come across. More importantly though – we will help our children and young people to learn and flourish by allowing them to take some risks.

In my role as Chair of the HSE I meet a wide range of people from all industries and sectors. I have been told by employers that young people do not seem to have the same mental or physical aptitude of those interviewed for roles or apprenticeships 10 to 15 years ago. Now, although this is anecdotal I dare say there might just be something in it. Today's children are undoubtedly spending more time in front of screens and are certainly not as physically active as those from previous generations. 

We need to enable exciting 'hands on' learning to take place in schools, both during lessons and when children are at play. The approach that schools take is absolutely key to teaching young people how to deal with risk. Let's make sure that our approach to health and safety helps us create enjoyable, enriching experiences for children through which they can develop awareness, judgment, and resilience.

Updated 2013-01-08