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June 5, 2013

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Schools – Health and safety management – The blackboard bungle?

Wayne Dunning reports on a round-table discussion, involving experts from both the education and OSH fields, which explored concerns about mismanagement of health and safety in school academies.

Since academies were introduced into the British education system some 13 years ago, 2924 schools have either opened or converted to academy status.1
But once they achieve academy status, many new school management teams, it seems, do not realise that they become responsible for their own health and safety measures.

In my experience those that have completed, or are undergoing, the transition from state-sponsored organisations to privately-run entities have intricate and confusing health and safety policies, generic risk assessments and teachers who are not adequately trained, or supervised in conducting their health and safety responsibilities effectively. This raises the question of whether schools have been given the necessary tools to properly manage the health and safety side of the academisation process.

To assess what health and safety risks and opportunities may be involved in moving schools away from local-authority control and, hopefully, come to a consensus on how to address some of the most glaring problems, a round-table discussion was recently convened. Lending counsel to the event was Tim Briggs, president-elect of IOSH, and David Rushton, head of education and leisure at RoSPA. They were joined by individual heads from the National Association for School Business Managers (NASBM), National College for School Leadership (NCSL) and Swavesey College, Cambridge — one of the UK’s leading academies — as well as Terry Parker and this author, from business consultancy ELAS.

Lack of knowledge

Rushton bemoaned the levels of what he and RoSPA have labelled “unconscious incompetence” in relation to health and safety in education. He said: “There’s a raft of people potentially involved, like business managers, in particular, along with facility managers, heads and governors who really don’t have an understanding of what they should understand and what their responsibilities are.”  

As many as 10 per cent of academies do not have sufficient policies or procedures in place for health and safety. Indeed, at the School Business Managers Conference in Manchester in March, it was revealed that one academy manager was under the misapprehension that the school’s insurance policy would cover any costs in the event of a prosecution.

Lack of engagement

One of the major obstacles to securing a coherent health and safety strategy in academies is accountability. Despite the legal imperative, few head teachers or governors are willing to take ownership of health and safety, with the responsibility often left to business managers, who themselves consider it a low priority.

To combat this, Bill Simmonds, chief executive at NASBM, felt that a compulsory annual audit would ensure the proper involvement of senior management. He said: “In my opinion, all schools should have to provide, annually, a certificate to show that they’ve had an inspection done and that everything is in place. As far as the academies are concerned, that should be a requirement to be forwarded to the Education Funding Agency on an annual basis.”

The next step is involving everyone else in the school environment in best health and safety practice — for example, an elegant way of addressing engagement would be to ask the children to watch for any health and safety mistakes that their teacher might make.

Simmonds remarked: “If the kids are involved, then they’ll become part of it, and I think that is important. I think when we talk about involvement, it’s got to be involvement that they [the pupils] have to work on. In other words, if they see something that isn’t right, they’ve got to think ‘that’s wrong, I’m going to pick it up and I’m going to take that back.'”

A lack of money does not have to restrict innovation — sometimes the simple ideas are the most effective, as Tim Briggs explained: “Involve the people who you’re trying to protect, and they will help you protect them. There was a school in Glasgow and it was always the nursery that delayed the fire drills. All of a sudden, they turned the fire drills into a game by putting green feet on the floors in the nursery to show the children where to go for the fire escapes. During the next fire drill, those nursery kids went down playing the game, and they were the first ones out.”

Rushton echoed the ‘whole-school approach’, adding: “It’s really about embedding two things: teaching safety and teaching safely. We come across some schools that have teachers and everybody who needs to be involved in health and safety, but also pupils — so, for example, pupils doing the risk assessment on a school trip.”

Local authority versus academy

While local authorities have management systems that should help ensure health and safety is in place in their schools, there has been significant variation in implementation across the UK, with some schools’ health and safety procedures not communicated or audited effectively by their councils, if at all.
Briggs sees the training of teachers and headmasters in health and safety as a “tick-box” exercise for many local authorities. He pointed out: “I’ve gone and looked at [a local-authority school’s] safety policy and they’ve got a document, they’ve got names, they’ve got responsibilities, they’ve got an intranet system. . . it’s been put to use. But there isn’t actually any channel of communication between the people who need to be doing the actions and those delegating responsibilities, so it’s not actually working.”

Many authorities do, of course, provide a valuable and effective service. Clive Paskell, business and resources manager for Swavesey College, has an effective support mechanism for school trips delivered by the local authority and bought back in by the college. He said: “It enables us to run something like a hundred [school] trips of one sort or another during the course of a year. So, it’s a very active and integral part of the students’ education.”

But this inconsistent picture is a concern, as the academisation process fragments the support received by schools even further. Kerry Brimfield, national school business manager-advocate for the NSCL, pointed out that some LA-run schools do get audited and can rely on the authority’s expertise on issues such as legionellosis and asbestos, adding: “I think some [academies] are still buying those services back in, but those that aren’t, those that are trying to truly be independent, are really struggling with where they’re going to get cost-effective advice.”

With responsibility for health and safety devolved to individual academies and heads, Rushton cautioned that this may create a postcode lottery for effective procedures. He explained: “At least [at] some of the local authorities, there were some resources in place. What goes on in the academy will depend on whether you’re part of a group, or an individual academy. It will depend on the head: you might get a head who’s got some experience with safety, and another one who hasn’t. I think that’s the problem; we’re going to end up with a very, very inconsistent picture.”

Funding problems

Terry Parker said most private companies would employ a health and safety officer to look after as many people as schools do. He said: “Academies and schools can be quite huge; you’ve got 1500 to 2000 pupils, you might have 200 staff. If we correlate that with a business outside, then normally that’s about the tipping point where you’d probably have someone full time doing health and safety, but those schools don’t.”

However, with budget cuts biting across the education sector, academies are faring no better than their state-funded counterparts, so there is little feasibility of employing someone full time to look after health and safety.

Brimfield admitted that even the cost of insurance can be crippling for smaller academies, saying: “There is a number of schools that are looking at insurances, the costs of them, and the amount of funding they’re getting because funding’s being slashed… What do you cut back on, first of all? It’s not your classroom teacher. . . You cut back on the cost of running — your general maintenance and your premises.”

Simmonds said he believed funding issues in academies may leave them with the uncomfortable choice between paying for a health and safety course and supporting an under-challenged pupil. He explained: “Unfortunately, with training, it doesn’t matter whether it’s health and safety, or anything else — schools are very loath to invest in training for support staff.”

So how can academies maintain a professional health and safety presence?  Paskell found a solution by joining forces with academies outside of his trust, thereby spreading the cost. “As a multi-academy trust, I think we have now been able to drive some economies of scale,” he said.

“My health and safety officer is also going to work in another school, which is also an academy but not part of our trust. . . I need somebody who can get in, drive, monitor, manage and make sure that everything that we say is happening is happening on the ground — and we’ve got that rigour, that audit.”

A future of collaboration

The model described above is not only progressive but one that is being adopted across the UK by academies desperate to meet their legal and moral obligations in a hostile economic environment.

Whether formally, via a multi-academy trust or federation, or informally, through bursar groups or heads groups, the key will be better cooperation across the academy sector to aid financial procurement of health and safety services, as well as ensuring effective transfer of knowledge and engagement throughout the school.

Paskell concluded: “Support and collaboration across the board will make the cost of everything cheaper for everybody. And then it’s through that collaboration that you can start to spread good practice, because it’s a real problem getting the information out to people. At the moment there isn’t a very clear pyramid of cascading information.”

Fig, 1

Free schools could exacerbate asbestos-management shortcomings

In 2011, Michael Lees, of the Asbestos in Schools (AiS) campaign, cautioned that the growth of free schools could expose teachers and pupils to health risks from poor asbestos management, unless the Government got to grips with providing better training on the matter for governors and teachers.

Since issuing his warning, new Department for Education (DfE) webpages have been set up to address a lack of training and awareness around asbestos in schools, but Lees wants it to be mandatory for school governors and head teachers to be properly trained in asbestos management and wants more resources deployed to improve awareness of asbestos among all teachers and school staff.

Lees highlighted his concerns following his own collation of HSE enforcement action on asbestos management issues against schools outside local-authority control. According to Lees, HSE inspectors visited 168 schools between November 2010 and July 2011, and took enforcement action against almost a fifth, with a further 110 given advice on improving their asbestos management. In total, there were 68 breaches of the HSWA 1974.

The inspections followed an earlier HSE initiative directed at local authority-managed schools, which resulted in 38 Improvement Notices being issued for similar asbestos failings.

Commenting on the enforcement findings, Lees said: “This is a disgraceful and dangerous disregard of health and safety laws. It is more proof that the Government’s policy of leaving asbestos in schools and managing it for the remaining life of the buildings is failing and putting teachers, support staff and pupils’ lives at risk.”

Highlighting issues surrounding free schools, he said: “The situation could be worse in free schools and some academies, as most parents and governors do not have the training and experience to manage asbestos, but are taking on the legal and practical responsibilities to do just that. Unless training is made mandatory for governors, headteachers and all staff, it is inevitable that this problem will worsen over the coming years.”

Also speaking in 2011, following the enforcement findings, chair of the Joint Union Asbestos Campaign Julie Winn said: “Raising awareness and improved training in the management of asbestos is fundamental to health and safety in UK schools containing asbestos.”

The HSE released official enforcement figures a few days after Lees published his findings, which showed some slight variation. The Executive’s figures, which cover November 2010 to June 2011, show that 164 independent, voluntary-aided and foundation schools and academies were inspected over the period. A total of 41 Improvement Notices was served on 28 schools, with a further 110 given informal advice.

The HSE said compliance with the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 in England, Scotland and Wales was broadly similar to the level indicated in its earlier survey and inspections of local authority-controlled schools.

The Department for Education’s dedicated webpages are available at: http://bit.ly/13f4GEc

Reference
1    www.education.gov.uk/schools/leadership/typesofschools/academies/b00208569/open-academies (accessed 17 May 2013)

Wayne Dunning is health and safety manager and leading health and safety consultant at Employment Law Advisory Services Ltd (ELAS).

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