Should Health & Safety be taught in primary schools?


The decision by Dedham Primary School to equip children aged 4 to 5 with hard hats, hi-viz jackets and clipboards, and to set up sub-committees that carried out risk assessments, has caused some controversy.

First aired in the Daily Mail, the story was rather misleadingly rehashed in brief in the Daily Telegraph. Surprisingly the Chair of HSE, Judith Hackett, chose to respond in writing to the latter, rather than going for the more detailed initial article.

Safety first?

So what was the truth of the story?

The explanation given by Head Teacher Heather Tetchner was that it was important to teach the 24 youngsters in the reception class how to be safe.

She explained, ‘before they use anything in the “outdoor classroom”, they go and do a risk assessment before all the children can access it. They go out with sheets and mark the areas that need to be talked about. It is important for every year-group, but particularly when they first come to the school.’

When the children did their autumn walk, a subcommittee and the teaching assistant checked out the path due to two diseased horse chestnut trees in the grounds. The children also highlighted things like “slipping on leaves”, so said that everyone must wear sensible shoes.

It should in fairness be noted that Ofsted inspectors praised the school for taking safety seriously.

Parental disapproval

However one anonymous father criticised the school, saying –

What is the world coming to when our children are being asked to think about health and safety before they can enjoy themselves? It’s a sad indictment when people feel that we have to teach children about this in such a way – it is taking away the innocence that only children have. It really is the death of childhood – imagine if someone had suggested this just 20 years ago, they would have been laughed out of the room.’

Inevitably, this story gave rise to many forum postings, most lamenting the ‘elf n’ safety’ culture: one correspondent wrote with tongue firmly in cheek -

Small children love nothing more than the chance to be bossy, officious and intransigent with their elders – and now they can get away with calling it homework.’

Some others stood up for the school’s action -

It seems like a great little bit of fun for the children – dressing up – looking for dangers and talking about them – practicing all sorts of little things in one go.’

‘This in my opinion is providing a deep learning experience which engages the children and allows them to make a reasonable judgement! The report here fails to see the learning potential of this! Check out the ELC play hats! This is not news Daily Mail!

HSE say ‘have fun’

The HSE Chair wrote in her response that it was sad to read about the children ‘being kitted out in hi-viz jackets and clipboards and asked to undertake risk assessments in the school grounds’.

No-one would disagree that young people need to learn about risk, but not like this. The school’s actions however well intentioned only succeed in turning health and safety into a parody. It sets the scene for continued misuse of “elf n safety” and overly bureaucratic nonsense for generations to come. School grounds are low risk environments, where children should be being encouraged to enjoy the outdoors, not see them as a place full of danger.

The Health and Safety Executive is doing its best to encourage working adults to take a more sensible and proportionate approach to managing risk in the workplace. Our message to four and five year old children in the playground is much simpler – get out there and have fun. Perhaps they could build a bonfire with the clipboards!’

Surely this ‘no nonsense’ approach from the top of the regulating body is welcome and should be applauded by employers who normally have to deal with the stringent application of the law as it applies to their activities.

Most health and safety consultants would also recognise that the ‘proportionate approach’ is a sensible way forward – in straitened circumstances, the regulators are responding to the need for them to focus on real dangers and not be ‘all-seeing’ and ever-present. Hard hats, it seems most people agree, should be reserved for grown-ups.