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School Health & Safety

Posted on 4th May, 2021

A recent prosecution by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has highlighted the duties owed by schools to members of the public.  In February 2017, a family member attended The Leys and St Faith’s Foundation School in Cambridge to watch an evening performance.  While walking towards the school hall the woman tripped over a small retaining wall and fell to the ground sustaining a serious head injury. Tragically, the lady died six days later in hospital

An investigation by the HSE found that The Leys & St Faith’s Foundation School had failed to ensure the area was adequately lit. A pedestrian site safety assessment failed to identify the risk of tripping over the wall and did not take into consideration the lighting conditions or potential effect of poor lighting on pedestrian safety particularly at night.

The Leys and St Faith’s Foundation School pleaded guilty at Peterborough Magistrates’ Court to breaching Section 3 (1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. They were fined of £52,800 and ordered to pay costs of £10,040.

Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector Graham Tompkins said:

“This tragic incident was easily preventable, and the risk should have been identified.  The school should have taken measures to improve lighting and install a handrail on top of the wall to increase the overall height.”

Safety Performance in the Education Sector

Schools, like employers and others in control of premises, have several duties under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.  Last year, there were 55,000 non-fatal injuries in the education sector, with the rate being broadly flat over recent years. Work related ill health cases in the sector were 140,000 with 55% relating to stress, depression or anxiety.

This case demonstrates the importance of having a suitable and sufficient risk assessment in place covering not just activities during the school day, but also evening and weekend activities that take place on school grounds.

The responsibility for the management of health and safety in schools legally rests with the employer.  The employer will be the local authority in respect of community, voluntary controlled and maintained schools.  The governing body of foundation and voluntary aided schools is the employer, whilst health and safety at academies rests with the academy trust.  However, the normal day-to-day running of a school is delegated to the head teacher or principal and the school management team, all of whom will have some health and safety responsibilities.  These responsibilities are normally set out in the statement of general policy on health and safety developed by the school and approved by the governing body.  It is also important to remember that teachers and classroom assistants, like all employees, have a duty to look after their own and others’ health and safety under s.7 The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

Where the local authority is the employer, it may give a direction concerning the health and safety of persons on school premises including pupils or taking part in any school activities elsewhere.  The Education Act 2002 requires the head teacher, and governing body of such schools, to comply with any such direction given by the local authority.

Safety Duties for Schools

The main piece of legislation governing health and safety is The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 which places duties on employers to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees.  A similar duty applies to persons in control of premises in respect of people using those premises which would include contractors, parents and pupils.  Schools and school staff also have a duty under common law to take care of pupils in the same way that a prudent parent would do so.  In addition to the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, there are many regulations which set out more specific requirements.  For example, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 requires employers to undertake a suitable and sufficient risk assessment in order to put in place appropriate controls.

Undertaking risk assessments ensures that health and safety risks have been considered and addressed to eliminate or reduce them as far as practicable.  Some activities, especially those taking place away from school, can involve higher levels of risk and those staff appointed to undertake the assessments must understand the risks and be familiar with the planned activity.  Such risk assessments must be recorded where the employer has five or more employees which will be the case in schools.  Once the assessment has identified the risks, controls should be put in place to eliminate or reduce them.  Schools are required to tell staff of the risks as well as the measures to be taken to manage the risks.

Schools should also implement a system which ensures that the risk assessment is reviewed when circumstances change (such as staff changes or where the mix of pupils significantly alters) as well as at regular intervals.  It is important that school governing bodies ensure that a system for monitoring health and safety performance is in place.  This could include reviewing accident and incident reports at governor meetings as well as arranging external audits to be undertaken.  Having health and safety as a standing item on governing body agendas is a good way to make sure the topic is considered at regular meetings.  Some governing bodies appoint a governor with particular responsibility for health and safety matters who acts as a focus for driving safety standards within school.  Many governing bodies also undertake audits and inspections themselves to ensure that health and safety controls are embedded into the school environment.

Outdoor Activities

Some activities such as outdoor learning and adventure activities can have higher levels of risk and require a good understanding of risk assessment practice.  These events by their nature, take place away from the school premises so there may be less control over the environment where the activity takes place.  Following the tragic incident at Glenridding Beck in 1992 when a pupil died whilst undertaking an outdoor activity, significant improvements have been made in planning for such activities.  The report on the incident identified several failures and made recommendations to help ensure such activities could be conducted safely in the future.  When planning such activities school staff should consider the following:

1.What are the main objectives of the visit?

2.What is “Plan B” if the main objectives can’t be achieved?

3.What could go wrong and do the arrangements cover:

  • The main activity
  • “Plan B”
  • Travel arrangements
  • Emergency procedures
  • Staffing and skills
  • Generic and site-specific hazards and risks (including for Plan B)
  • Variable hazards (including environmental and participants’ personal abilities and the ‘cut off’ points).

4.What information will be provided for the participant, leaders and parents? Will they be able to ask questions, is there a meeting arranged?

5.What assurances are there of the leader(s) competencies?

6.What are the communication arrangements when the trip is underway?

7.What are the arrangements for supervision, both during activities and ‘free time’

8.What feedback or change has there been from previous trips?

It should be remembered that activities such as caving, climbing, trekking or water sports schools must check that the provider holds a licence under the Adventure Activities Licensing Regulations 2004.

Whilst serious accidents and fatalities are rare in the education sector, schools must still ensure they have effective health and safety management systems in place.  Governing bodies must provide the strategic leadership in terms of health and safety standards, as well as ensuring appropriate resources are allocated to the task.  The head teacher, and other school staff, must understand their responsibilities for health and safety in school and have undertaken appropriate training so that they can carry out those duties.

If your school requires advice on health and safety issues, please contact one of the Jacksons Education Team.

Mark Stouph, Health & Safety Consultant

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