Judith Hackitt, head of the Health and Safety Executive, was right recently when she said that the muddle about health and safety cannot be laid solely at her door. To take one example: no credible organisation has ever advised that egg boxes and toilet roll holders should be banned from the classroom. The HSE itself has labelled the ban one of its ‘myths of the month’. Yet despite this, many early years teachers and childcarers are convinced that egg boxes are a biological risk too far.
However, the HSE remains at the very centre of the mess. It was borne out of pre and postwar workplace tragedies, when far too many employees were being maimed or killed due to management negligence and exploitation. Its culture and ways of working are still rooted in the factory setting. Here, the basic ‘risk is bad’ approach – work out the main risks, and take steps to reduce them – remains sound.
The problem is that places where children learn are not like factories. For instance, in a workplace, there is no good reason to have a rope bridge. It is simply an unnecessary hazard. Yet in a playground, a rope bridge is a positive asset. It forces children to weigh up the risks and decide for themselves whether or not they are brave enough to cross.
Children learn from their own efforts, and from their mistakes. If we try too hard to keep them safe, we starve them of the very experiences that they need if they are to learn how to deal with the everyday ups and downs of life. In other words, not all risk is bad.
To her credit, Hackitt has recognised this crucial insight. But the HSE has so far failed to figure out what it means. The central point – the need to balance protection against experience and learning – is missing. What is also missing is the message that doing this needs thought, sound judgement and the confidence that you are not inevitably going to get hammered if the worst happens and a child suffers real harm.
The HSE needs to do three things to show it means business. First, it needs to actively promote risk management methods that take a balanced approach: that help people weigh up risks against benefits. Risk benefit assessment (RBA) – an approach that we in the play industry have been using for some years – does this. While the HSE has made supportive statements about RBA, it has yet to embrace it as the right approach in learning contexts. By contrast, its own preferred method – 5 steps to risk assessment – does not even mention benefits.
Second, HSE needs to accept that in many walks of life, managing risk means making value judgements when the outcomes are by definition uncertain. This is a complex process that simply cannot be reduced to guidelines, procedures and checklists. The recent slimmed-down guidance for schools is helpful – but unless schools are also helped to embrace risk and uncertainty with confidence, they will simply cry out for more guidance (as the teaching unions have already done).
Third, HSE needs to respond more fairly on the inevitable (and rare) occasions when tragedies happen. Sometimes, even good risks can hurt, maim or kill. In the playground and outdoor activity sectors the belief is widely held that, for all Judith Hackitt’s welcome words, when a child is seriously injured or dies, such statements will count for nothing. Instead, they fear that HSE investigators will turn CSI and not stop until they have found some failing – no matter how minor or marginal – that allows them to point the finger of blame.
The Government, in its ringing endorsement of the Young Review has given the strongest signal that it wants a more proportionate, thoughtful, balanced approach. My colleagues and I are working with the HSE to take forward the review’s recommendations. We will only be satisfied when HSE is crystal clear that what is needed is nothing less than a new philosophy: one that truly embraces risk, uncertainty and real challenge – even real danger – as essential ingredients of a rounded childhood.
[Note: this is a rewrite of a comment piece of mine published by the Guardian on 5 July 2011. This version focuses on the role of the HSE.]