Health and Safety chief warns risk averse schools are stifling children

Queen Mary's School pupil walks along a pole at the private North Yorkshire school in 2010 where the former head encouraged pupils to learn about risk.

Queen Mary's School pupil walks along a pole at the private North Yorkshire school in 2010 where the former head encouraged pupils to learn about risk.

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COPING WITH risk and danger is crucial to a child’s education and should become a key part of the school curriculum, the chairwoman of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has said.

Dame Judith Hackitt, said that children were suffering under an “excessive risk-averse” culture in schools, which was stifling their readiness for the real world.

Former  headmaster Robert McKenzie Johnston and girls from Queen Mary's School, Topcliffe, during  a canoeing lesson in 2008. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

Former headmaster Robert McKenzie Johnston and girls from Queen Mary's School, Topcliffe, during a canoeing lesson in 2008. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

She criticised the growing health and safety culture in schools, which she described as “nonsensical”, adding that children should be encouraged to climb trees and play games where there might be a risk of injury.

Dame Judith made the comments during a speech to the Royal Academy of Engineering, in which she called on schools to put an end to top-down “bureaucratic” behaviour.

“Overprotective parents and risk-averse teachers who do not enable children to learn to handle risk will lead to young adults who are poorly equipped to deal with the realities of the world around them, unable to discern real risk from trivia, not knowing who they can trust or believe,” she added.

“They will be a liability in any workplace if they do not have those basic skills to exercise judgment and take responsibility for themselves.”

Although Dame Judith’s organisation has been seen to be too health and safety obsessed in the past, a spokeswoman for the HSE said that it “absolutely supports Dame Judith’s position - one which she has held and campaigned on extensively”.

“As an organisation we agree that children need to learn about the world, they need to be able to go out and play, instead of being wrapped up in cotton wool,” she added. In recent years, controversial safety precautions in schools have seen teachers ban pupils from throwing snowballs, while traditional games such as Tig, or Tag, and British Bulldog, are now off the playground itinerary in more than one in four schools, according to a survey carried out by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

Last month, more than 70 doctors and academics wrote a letter to the Government calling for a nationwide ban on contact rugby in schools, due to the risks associated with “high-impact collision sport”.

Increasingly, the HSE has felt it necessary to intervene in individual cases, where it has felt that schools have made overzealous risk assessments.

A former headmaster of an independent school in Yorkshire regularly called for schools not to use health and safety rules as an excuse not to take part in physical activities.

Robert McKenzie Johnston used to allow pupils to toboggan down the stairs at Queen Mary’s School in Baldersby Park in North Yorkshire, and pupils also took part in canoe lessons and outdoor camps as part of their education.

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