March 2011

The know zone

  • Setting parameters
    Goggles to play conkers, candy floss caution and banning flip-flops are some of the myths attributed to health and safety. In the end, says Richard Bird, there’s no danger in acting responsibly and thoughtfully. More
  • Hotline
    The ASCL hotline is a completely confidential service available to answer members’ questions on issues that arise in school/college. More
  • Pressing numbers
    Sam Ellis unveils a new spreadsheet to help leaders calculate their affordable pupil-teacher ratio. More
  • Lead vocals
    Quotes from Albert Einstein, Marry Browne, Anton Chekhov, Winston Churchill and Alan Autry More
  • A richer mix
    Whole Education brings together almost 30 charities and other bodies whose joint goal is to offer students a broader, deeper learning experience. More
  • Adding value
    Most of us look forward to spring and putting our clocks forward. Unfortunately our biological clocks take a little longer to reset. More
  • Smart choice
    Allison Crompton is headteacher of Middleton Technology School, Rochdale, Greater Manchester, which was singled out by Ofsted as one of 12 outstanding schools which excel against the odds. She was awarded a CBE in the New Year Honours List 2011. More
  • Sticking with CPD?
    With renewed emphasis on sharing good practice around the system – and with budget cuts to make – leaders share their thoughts on how they are ensuring value for money in CPD. More
  • Leaders' surgery
    The antidote to common leadership conundrums... More
  • The challenges ahead
    With the appearance of a Curriculum Review and Education Bill already in 2011, ASCL Council had a packed agenda in February. Not surprisingly, pensions, funding and the English Bac were high on the agenda. More
  • The gap years...
    Steps by the government to dismantle Connexions, abolish the EMA and allow universities to raise tuition fees threaten to lock the middle classes out of university, says Brian Lightman. And it undermines the coalition’s aim to improve social mobility. More
  • Busman's holiday...
    It requires team-working, careful monitoring, effective skills development and strong leadership. So how would Ofsted assess a joint family holiday asks Catherine Szabo. More
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Goggles to play conkers, candy floss caution and banning flip-flops are some of the myths attributed to health and safety. In the end, says Richard Bird, there’s no danger in acting responsibly and thoughtfully.

Setting parameters

One sadness, as we said goodbye to the year 2010, was the demise of the Health and Safety Executive’s ‘Myth of the month’ which has been a constant joy for connoisseurs of the folly of mankind.

There was the time the HSE discovered that it had banned step ladders (no, it hadn’t). Later, it found out that it had also banned celebratory bunting and wearing flip-flops to work.

And did you hear the one about the trapeze artist who was told he had to wear a hard hat when working at height?

Then there was the office that employed a qualified person to put up the Christmas decorations along with, of course, a risk assessment consultant.

But that was nothing to the problems councils would have faced if all park benches really had to be raised by three inches.

At times, the HSE must have felt there was a national team of comedians working away to come up with the daftest suggestion.

Take school fetes – there was the ban on candy floss because of the danger of the stick hidden in the fluff, the ban on ice cream toppings in case one spilt and someone slipped on it and, of course, the demand for a written risk assessment on the Punch and Judy Show.

Pancake races and hanging baskets were also threatened. And then there was the drama company which had to lock up their plastic replica guns and report them to the police. ( The HSE delicately suggested that this was, perhaps, a publicity stunt…)

Fun for children was also out. Everyone has heard of the duty to ensure that conkers was played with properly-adjusted goggles – which got off more lightly than snowballing, which was banned altogether.

All myths

At this point, it had better be repeated that all of these bans and demands are myths. No law, regulation or guidance imposed any of them.

So what made it necessary for the HSE to contradict these absurdities? Sadly, because people believed them.

Over and over again, the HSE says that “on its own, paper never saved anyone”, that there is no need to have elaborate risk assessments and that “for most (situations), bullet points work very well indeed”.

But still the HSE found someone trying to insist on an elaborate paper trail to eliminate, or at least label, every conceivable risk. (As the HSE explained: if everything is labelled, nobody reads the labels.)

The problem, as Lord Young pointed out in his recent report, is that all those involved wind each other up. Insurers try to prevent any shadow of a claim, risk assessment consultants try to produce a totally risk-free environment, and those in charge on the ground look fearfully over their shoulders at the possibility of legal action.

Legal action ‘rare’

The HSE pointed out in 2008 that, despite its best efforts, it had failed to find a single teacher who had been sued as an individual in the previous five years.

Even legal actions against schools and colleges are relatively rare, and for good reason. Where people act in a responsible and thoughtful way, there is no traction for the law. Health and safety regulations demand reasonable precautions, not total security.

It certainly comes to something when the HSE has to insist that properly managed risk is essential to children’s development. Of course remote risks exist. It is possible that a child needing a plaster may be allergic to the plaster.

So have hypoallergenic plasters ready, says the HSE. It is not necessary to have the parent come in to put the plaster on.

Foreseeable risks

Health and safety for staff and welfare for students operate on the same basis. Where there is a duty of care there is a duty to take account of risks that are foreseeable. What can be done to alleviate those risks should be done.

Where that cannot be done, people should be taught how to meet and minimise those risks. Where it is exceptional, or not apparent, the risk should be indicated.

Staff training should encourage the ability to make effective assessments of risk ‘on the hoof’, to avoid the danger of sticking to a rigid plan when circumstances change. And that is that.

There is no need to imagine every possible circumstance, however improbable, that might cause damage. That has been the consistent message from the HSE through the monthly myth and that message survives.

Setting parameters