Family Matters: Schools bottom of the health and safety class

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Most parents have heard the stories about how children aren’t allowed to play conkers at school, or wear ties, because of health and safety rules.

But while such tales are mainly myths, the more disturbing reality is that thousands of kids have been seriously injured in accidents at school over the last five years, costing the taxpayer more than £3.3 million in compensation in just three of England’s biggest cities alone.

Incidents include fractured bones and severed fingers, with many resulting from unsafe classroom and PE equipment, according to health and safety experts Employment Law Advisory Service (ELAS), who obtained the figures.

They found that a total of 1,980 personal injury claims were lodged across Greater London, Birmingham and Greater Manchester in the five years since September 2008, and 444 of them were successful.

“These figures are shocking and clearly not enough is being done to protect children in schools from what are, in the main, preventable accidents,” says Wayne Dunning, ELAS’ lead health and safety consultant. “The statistics emerging from these three cities are only the tip of the iceberg.

“Health and safety’s not being managed properly in the education sector and this is costing taxpayers millions, not only in direct compensation but also additional hidden costs from administration.”

Dunning says that it’s clear from the nature of the accidents that many areas are being overlooked by school managers and teachers, and points out: “It’s not through any fault of their own, but because they haven’t received the necessary training required to identify the potential risks and hazards that may prevent an accident from happening in the first place.

“These are quite basic health and safety failings and the Government needs to invest more in training, so that accidents that put children in danger are avoided.”

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), agrees that school managers and teachers often don’t have enough guidance to make schools the safest they possibly can be.

She says school health and safety guidance is currently piecemeal, and suggests: “There should be national guidance available for school managers on what their duties are, how to avoid risk, and what’s a reasonable way of doing that.

“You can’t avoid all accidents, but schools have to make sure safety requirements are met, such as adequate staff supervision, and national guidance will help staff.”

She says that while stories about seemingly over-zealous school health and safety measures have hit the headlines in recent years, such tales are often taken out of context, and there’s no reason to think that rules are any more or less stringent than they were in the last generation.

Certainly, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) confirms that the no conkers or school ties rules are indeed myths - the conkers story is believed to have arisen after a well-meaning head teacher decided children should wear safety goggles to play conkers, and subsequently some schools banned the game ‘on health & safety grounds’.

However, the HSE points out: “Realistically, the risk from playing conkers is incredibly low and just not worth bothering about.”

And as for banning school ties and wanting children to wear clip-on ties: “HSE doesn’t ban school ties - it’s up to schools to make their own decisions about uniforms.”

The HSE also points out that health and safety policies in schools are the responsibility of local authorities.

“Sometimes people might be less likely to take safety in schools seriously because they think about the not playing conkers-type stories and people not being able to do normal activities because they’re told they’re risky,” adds Blower.

“But there’s usually a very sensible premise behind safety rules, and if people had more information about them, and understood that procedures are sensible and why they’re there, they’d be prepared to follow them because they produce a safer school, which is what everyone wants.

“Teachers spend a lot of time trying to make sure accidents don’t happen and rules are followed,” she stresses.

General guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) stresses that health and safety measures should help children experience a wide range of activities safely, but not stop them.