In this day and age, it is rare to hear a civil servant calling for children to be exposed to risky situations. But when Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman accused schools of mollycoddling students, that’s exactly what seemed to happen – or so the tabloid headlines would have you believe.
Spielman claims that headteachers are unable to distinguish between ‘real and imagined risk’. This leads many teachers to avoid learning experiences that leaving kids unskilled in the area of personal responsibility – and potentially depriving them of many enjoyable experiences growing up.
Her comments were quite cutting;
‘Trying to insulate your pupils from every bump, germ or bruise, won’t just drive you to distraction, it will short change those pupils as well – limiting their opportunity to fully take advantage of the freedom of childhood, and to explore the world around them.’
Taking health and safety responsibilities too far?
Spielman’s statements have caused outrage in some quarters, with teachers’ unions sharply criticising the advice. One anonymous source said, ‘Surely parents are the people who can take risks with their own children and not those entrusted to keep them safe.‘
The Health and Safety at Work Act requires employers and responsible parties to take all reasonable steps to reduce risk of injury under their control. Which means safeguarding against actual dangers. It does not, as Spielman points out, require protections against imagined threats.
In her own example, Spielman suggests that although children should be closely supervised when walking to school, there is no need to make them wear a hi-vis vest. There are dangers inherent in walking along the road – but they are well known and managed. The hi-vis vest is an unnecessary additional protection against an imagined risk.
Real and imaginary risks in the workplace
In the workplace, there is a need to balance health and safety obligations, and profitability. Unnecessary spend on safeguards increases costs and eats into profit margins.
And if legislation only requires you to protect against genuine risks, everything else is a waste of time, effort and money.
This realisation is liberating and dangerous. Businesses are free to reduce spending on unnecessary safeguards – but they can go too far. It is absolutely essential that comprehensive risk assessments are undertaken for every activity on site, identifying the very real dangers present. But it is then incumbent on the employer to take those findings and act upon them.
Simply deciding that a perceived risk “isn’t too bad” is no justification for failing to implement measures to protect workers. And if there is any doubt about whether a risk is real or imagined, employers must seek professional advice, or they could be placing their workers in danger.
Amanda Spielman has raised an important topic for teachers and employers with potentially long-term consequences. It will be interesting to see if anyone heeds her concerns.