Not overstating a risk avoidance problem in schools

Managing partner, Park Health and Safety Partnership

Amanda Spielman, England’s chief inspector of schools, has argued in one of her few public interventions since her appointment that overcautious safety and health procedures in schools are denying children the chance to develop resilience and grit.

She referred in her pronouncement, of course, to the non-existent ban on children playing conkers in school playgrounds. Why wouldn’t she? It’s an easy target even if it is a political concoction.

Spielman suggested it was “sad” that groups of primary school children on a day out are made to wear hi-vis vests. Personally, I think that they look cute, and it must be much easier for the few teachers and parents herding groups on and off public transport to see whether they are leaving any of their charges behind.

Some years ago a teacher was imprisoned for manslaughter following the death of a child on a school trip, so schools may be justified in focusing tightly on the safety of pupils. 

However, unlike the conkers lie, if there genuinely are schools banning sports because the grass is wet or, as Spielman suggests, more generally “wrapping our children in cotton wool”, then that is disproportionate safety and health management.

Nevertheless, it might seem more important for the chief inspector of schools to concentrate on the funding crisis that has starved schools of funds so that teachers are being made redundant this summer.

So why complain about the mythical conkers bans? It’s August, on a slow news day, so let’s bash elf ’n’ safety because sometimes there is an overprotective, risk-averse approach and we need only one or two examples for good copy while not discussing the real threat to education.

Another story reported at the same time as Spielman’s criticism of risk aversity was prompted by the publication of Fake Silk, by Paul Blanc, a professor of medicine at the University of California.

We want a balance: neither over-protection nor a demonisation of safety precautions

The book tells the fascinating, horrifying story of the manufacture of viscose fibres for clothing in the west throughout the 20th century using hazardous chemicals such as carbon disulfide, and the resultant damage to health and early deaths of many workers. They were exposed to work risks for decades before controls, which had been vigorously resisted by employers just as with asbestos, were eventually introduced. 

We may not want our children wrapped in cotton wool, but neither do we want them unnecessarily harmed by a cavalier system of school management. We want a balance: neither over-protection nor a demonisation of safety precautions. Soundbites to attack safety precautions may be a call to arms for proportionality, to enable young people to have controlled experiences that develop their ability to understand risk.

But beware: the same simple phrases can also be used to argue against the type of regulatory standards that distinguish between a civilised society that looks after everyone, especially the vulnerable, and an anarchy where only the market counts, and accidents and ill health at work become an acceptable price to be paid by one group for the benefit, usually, of quite another.  


Lawrence Waterman OBE CFIOSH is managing partner at the Park Health and Safety Partnership, and was formerly head of health and safety for the London Olympic Delivery Authority. He is past president of IOSH.


  • Excellent article and 100%

    Permalink Submitted by Douglas Cameron on 9 October 2017 - 01:16 pm

    Excellent article and 100% correct

  • It is also significant that

    Permalink Submitted by Bill Lockwood on 6 November 2017 - 11:30 am

    It is also significant that the Government withdrew the detailed helpfully informative book that was available about "Health and Safety of Pupils on Educational Visits" and replaced it with a pamphlet of platitudes about the idea of visits. The scheme for training Educational Visit Co-ordinators was largely abandoned, and the well-trusted Pupil Safety Unit at the DfE was scrapped.


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