Wrapping our Children in Cotton Wool
Addressing the issues around Health and Safety for school visits
School Trips: Hazardous or Healthy?
Teachers could be forgiven for finding it hard to keep track of the shifting ideas about how to keep school children safe. Many were left shocked by the comments of Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman in August, who said that schools were wrapping their students “in cotton wool”. As a result, the nation’s children were not learning “resilience and grit” to deal with the real world.
Spielman, who took over as head of Ofsted at the start of the year, branded schools’ current approach as “over-cautious”. She lampooned the habit of dressing children in hi-vis jackets - it makes primary pupils look like “tiny construction workers”, she said. Inevitably, teachers have hit back, arguing that Ofsted’s standards have encouraged schools to be wary of any risk, and to cover their backs with detailed paperwork.
Spielman’s comments might seem bold, but are nothing new. In fact, her words of wisdom follow closely the Health and Safety Executive’s own advice to schools published in 2012. Key message: “Children won’t learn about risk if they’re wrapped in cotton wool.”
Paperwork used as “security blanket”
The HSE was seeking to dispel myths about the health and safety requirements of any school visit. It emphasised that pages-long risk assessments covering “trivial and fanciful” risks were of little value and just served as a “security blanket” for those planning the trip. A school’s paperwork should be easy to use and proportionate to the risk-level of the activity, it states. A caving expedition will clearly require a longer risk assessment than a trip to the local library.
Any safety measures should be appropriate for the context. As some teachers observed, commenting online on Spielman’s remarks, hi-vis vests can be an effective tool, making it easy to spot students at a distance on a beach, for instance. But at busy museums, where there are often multiple school trips, the hi vis jackets are worse than useless.
Really, all sides - from the Chief Inspector to the Health and Safety Executive to teachers - seem to be pleading for common sense. Teachers need time, support and experience to plan and run safe, successful visits. School leadership should prioritise creating a culture to make this possible.
McCormack Benson Health and Safety’s specialist consultants can bring a common sense approach to schools as they negotiate their health and safety needs. Our representatives can offer advice on designing user-friendly and versatile systems to ensure schools can make the most of learning opportunities out in the wider world.