Weaving health and safety into school culture

Written by: Stephen Horn | Published:
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Health and safety needn’t be complex or onerous. It’s about being curious and using common sense, especially when it comes to risk assessments. Stephen Horn offers some advice for school leaders

Health & Safety! The words often conjure up a variety of emotions for school leaders.

For some, it’s a matter of ensuring basic compliance amid a sea of competing priorities. For others, health and safety is an intrinsic element of school culture, with an emphasis on prevention.

Of course, the latter approach is the best one. But with leaders under so much pressure in the day-to-day running of a school, how is it possible to frame health and safety in a way that senior leadership colleagues, staff and indeed students understand it to be as much a part of school life as teaching and learning?

Ultimately, a good or outstanding school will place the welfare of its pupils and its staff at the forefront of everything it does. Keeping the school community safe and protected from potential accidents is naturally a major element of this.

In my experience as a health and safety lead for a large education group (comprising three further education college campuses and an eight-school multi-academy trust) the attitude towards health and safety from management will shape the wider culture throughout the school.

If a leader takes the approach of only raising a health and safety concern when an accident or incident happens, then you have a potential problem.

Once an accident has occurred, it’s too late – the opportunity to prevent it has been missed and there is a possibility that a member of staff or a pupil could be seriously injured.

A proactive approach

Prevention rather than cure is key and to do to this, leaders need to be able to interpret and analyse health and safety data in the same way they do curriculum, attendance, and other Ofsted-relevant data.

This information can tell you what is going on in a school more generally. For example, how many staff have had their health and safety induction? How many have been trained in the relevant areas? Are risk assessments regularly assessed and updated, reflecting their purpose as live, working documents?

These things all provide clear indicators as to the likelihood of accidents occurring – and are ultimately part of what leaders should be measuring and tuned in to if they are to prevent adverse events happening.

Accidents do happen of course, but as a leader you would want to be able to say confidently that every mitigation was (and remains) in place as far as reasonably practicable.

To cement this culture, you need to be visible, curious and ask questions regularly. For example, we know pupils kick footballs and they land on the roof, but have you ever asked your team: “How do you get those down safely?”

If a member of your site team is expected to work in the boiler room, have you been in there and do you know what their work environment is like? If you build safety into your daily conversations and school walks as part of “the way we do things” it stops being an additional task that needs to be done on top of everything else.

Risk assessments

One of the most important but least understood health and safety processes is the risk assessment. The very notion of a risk assessment can cause anxiety – there is a perception that these should be perfect, high-level documents, full of industry terms.

But the reality is that these are working documents – to be used and referred to regularly and updated, rather than being stored away. They should not be complex – but based on common sense, simple and “live”.

When I speak to staff about a potential risk, they will often articulate the procedure that is required very fluently, but then be concerned that it is “too simple” to include in an official risk assessment.

For example – if a drink gets spilt, wipe it up; if paths are icy, grit them; if students are doing a science experiment, wear safety goggles, etc. These are simple things, and we need to quash the notion that risk assessments should be complex and onerous.

Of course, there are some situations when expert advice and input is certainly needed. Two potential pitfalls are building changes and statutory inspection. Often school leaders will want to change the layout of their school and this may mean removal of walls or additional structures – areas in which schools are highly likely to need professional advice.

Equally when it comes to the legally required inspections relating to pressure systems or lifting equipment, a competent person must advise you and carry out any associated checks.

Leaders must focus on the whole school community, taking a holistic approach to health and safety for both staff and pupils. Schools that embed health and safety into their day-to-day operations tend to have high standards across the board.

I know from my own role that schools are at different places in their health and safety journeys. There are so many different challenges and it is vital to identify specifically where issues lie so they can be tackled.

Taking control of health and safety with a common sense, whole-organisational approach will help stop many accidents before they happen. My belief is that we should be aiming for an environment where staff and pupils come to school knowing health and safety has been demonstrated to be genuinely important to leaders and that this view is shared throughout the school community.

Five self-evaluation questions

So allow me to leave you with five questions to help you reflect on your school’s approach to health and safety and whether it needs some attention:

  • Do you include safety in your daily conversations with staff? Are you a visible leader?
  • Are your staff as comfortable about passing on the bad news as they are the good?
  • Do you have an effective system for measuring your lead indicators, like staff training?
  • Do you check to make sure staff understand and follow your risk assessments?
  • Do you have a formal process for managing changes and access to competent advice? If not, it's time to start!
  • Stephen Horn is group director of health and safety at the London and South East Education Group.

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