Embracing risk and danger in schools

Written by: Mike Fairclough | Published:
Managed risks: (all images) Pupils at West Rise Junior School take part in a range of activities including beekeeping, clay pigeon shooting and archery

Schools are too often blaming health and safety for not being able to take risks with activities for pupils. Headteacher Mike Fairclough says the time has come to stop making excuses...

Many headteachers, teachers and parents ask me how it is that I can have a herd of water buffalo roaming around my school grounds and regularly take children shooting with shotguns.

Why am I “allowed” to build a Bronze Age roundhouse with my pupils and teach them beekeeping, among many other unconventional pursuits at my state-funded, mainstream junior school. They almost always ask me, “so how do you get away with it?”

There is a big misconception, within the teaching profession, the media and the general public, that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is against the idea of children being exposed to danger and that schools are prevented from giving their children experiences which involve risk.

Earlier this year, I worked with the HSE to try to dispel the myth that schools are prevented from embracing risk and danger. The then chair of the HSE, Dame Judith Hackitt, had read about my school in the national press and approached me in 2015 to suggest that we send an accurate message to the teaching profession and parents about health and safety in schools.

We decided to show the nation in a hands-on way that taking risks and exposing children to danger in a responsible manner is a good thing to do and that it is completely supported by the HSE. I designed a complete day of activities with the children for Dame Judith to engage in and for a television crew to film at the same time.

As part of my school, grounds, I lease 120 acres of marshland opposite the main school site on which I run a farm. Out on the land, we teach the children everything from Forest School skills through to clay pigeon shooting with shotguns.

We also have a large lake on which we teach the children stand-up paddle-boarding and fishing. We have a million bees in several hives on-site which the children look after as well as a herd of Asian water buffalo, a flock of sheep and various other animals. You can see why the HSE thought that my school would be a good example of risk-taking and adventurous activities in a state school!

The experiential day out on my marsh was designed to explore aspects of our Bronze Age project and included children smelting tin and copper to make bronze, “Flint Knapping” (the shaping of flint), foraging for food and eating it, dying wool from our sheep and spinning it, lighting fires for cooking, using knives to make spears, making bows and arrows, and making pots from clay from the marsh and firing them next to the open fire.

We have been teaching the children about the Bronze Age because the school happens to be situated on the site of the second largest Bronze Age settlement in Europe. Part of this project has been to build a Prehistoric village on the marsh with the children. We have completed one roundhouse and have recently begun work to construct another one.

Dame Judith came to the school and took part in every one of the planned activities alongside the children, while the BBC filmed it all. Dame Judith, the BBC and the children then jumped in the back of the school trailer and were pulled by a tractor to go and feed the water buffalo.

The tractor passed by the bee sanctuary to see how the children actively take part in beekeeping. Dame Judith also chatted to members of the British Association of Shooting and Conservation (BASC), who were teaching our children to shoot shotguns and fire air rifles.

The BBC interviewed Dame Judith and asked her whether playing conkers at school and snowball fighting had ever been banned by the HSE. She made it very clear that these activities had never been banned and that children should be allowed to engage in these classic childhood pursuits. She was filmed with the children shooting shotguns, making fires and feeding the water buffalo. She endorsed every activity we engaged in.

In her interview, Dame Judith said that other schools should be embracing risk and danger in a calculated and responsible manner and that other schools were using the HSE and misinformation as an excuse not to do so.

She also explained that coping with risk and danger is crucial to a child’s education and should become a key part of the school curriculum, adding that children were suffering under an “excessively risk-averse” culture in schools. This she said was not preparing them adequately for later life. This message was clearly communicated to the profession and to the general public, via the BBC and reported in the national and education press.

However, the message still hasn’t reached everyone and I am still asked why I haven’t yet been thrown out of my school by Ofsted or the HSE. What Dame Judith said on behalf of the HSE should be enough for any teacher, school leader, governing body or parent to realise that no one is stopping children from engaging in the real world and embracing risk and danger.

In my book Playing With Fire, I discuss my approach to risk-taking in schools. I offer examples from my own school and explain how every school in the country can safely engage in activities involving risk and danger and why we should be doing this for the benefit of all our children.

This year, I urge every headteacher in the UK to let their pupils bring conkers to school and to play with them. When it snows, please also allow the children to throw snowballs in the playground. Of course there needs to be responsible adult supervision and children need to be shown how to safely engage in these activities (don’t throw snowballs where there is ice, or where there are pebbles, for example).

Let us all allow our children to have the exciting childhood experiences which we used to enjoy and which every child deserves.

Once and for all, let’s stop blaming health and safety bans which were never there in the first place and instead embrace risk and danger responsibly in schools.

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