Tackling the playground claim culture

Accident helpline adYesterday’s Daily Mail ran a story about risk with a familiar headline: “Schoolchildren compensation claims for playground injuries running into millions, with thousands paid out for falling over or getting hit by a ball.” In fact, the headline was highly misleading, as the claims did not just cover playgrounds. Nonetheless, on the face of it some of the incidents – an eye injury from a ball, or a fall on snow and ice – suggest an over-reaction (though even here, the devil is in the detail). Whatever the truth about the level of claims, fear of litigation is a big driver of risk aversion around children’s play, as I know from my talks and workshops. So how should schools, councils, charities and businesses respond to this fear?

Managing Risk guide coverThe Play England publication Managing Risk in Play Provision: Implementation Guide (which I co-authored with David Ball and Bernard Spiegal) gives a case study that helps to answer this question. I quote the full text below (taken from the latest edition, published before Christmas). The key message is the importance of clarifying goals and values, and building a shared understanding about risk in children’s play.

“Wolverhampton City Council’s approach to risk and liability is based on two key principles: fairness and a policy-based commitment to maximise public benefit. Wolverhampton’s risk management practice is founded on the understanding that there is a balance to be struck between risk and benefit, and that it is the council’s duty to make judgements that advance the general public good.

“Wolverhampton Council is predominantly self-insured in respect of its liability risks (it carries its own excess of £250,000). It is council policy to defend robustly any claim where it does not consider itself liable. It is also council policy to settle claims quickly where it judges that it has been at fault. In the words of the head of risk management and insurance, Wolverhampton City Council has developed a ‘culture of defending claims but providing a firm but fair settlement in respect of those where it is liable’.

“All claims are handled internally. Decision-making about how to respond to claims is delegated to the council’s risk and insurance manager, who works with an in-house claims team. Generally the council’s insurers are not involved in the decision-making process, though they may be consulted in the event of a claim being made that could result in liabilities beyond the self-insured limit. However, this rarely occurs.

“The council, along with the voluntary sector, worked with PLAYLINK to develop a corporate, cross-sectoral play policy in the period 2005-06. The process of policy formation involved members, health and safety officers, parks planners and the play department. Exploring attitudes to, and understandings about, risk in play formed an integral part of the process.

“Wolverhampton’s play policy, incorporating the Play Safety Forum’s Managing Risk in Play Provision: A position statement, was agreed by the council in 2007. The play policy slots neatly into Wolverhampton’s general approach to risk management outlined above.

“The council recognised that a play policy alone would not be sufficient to embed a culture change in the staff responsible for all forms of play provision. It was recognised that many of those involved in delivering play opportunities tended to ‘go for safety’, and that the ‘fear factor’ – about potential claims, and parental or other complaints – led to defensive practice.

“As a result, the head of risk management and insurance and the play officer have created a learning programme on risk and play for all staff whose decisions have an impact on play provision. This learning programme forms part of the council’s play strategy, and aims to create practitioners who are confident to make judgements about the risk-benefit balance in the range of situations they encounter.”

Nursery World coverCoincidentally, this week’s Nursery World magazine also has a lead article on risk [subscription content, with an option of one week’s free access]. But it has a rather different message. Written by leading early years academic Helen Tovey, it makes a strong case for a balanced, thoughtful approach. It draws extensively on Managing Risk in Play Provision: Implementation Guide, and also quotes the Health and Safety Executive’s landmark high level statement on risk and play. As Wolverhampton shows, it is quite possible to take forward exactly the kind of approach Tovey calls for, while also taking reasonable steps to manage the risk of legal action.

If you work with children, how has your agency or service tackled the fear of litigation, and what success have you had? I would be very interested to hear your stories.

Managing Risk in Play Provision: Implementation Guide, second edition, is available in pdf form only, from the Play England website.

Update 3 pm – Bernard Spiegal, responding to this post, has just posted a discussion of a recent school playground appeal court judgement case, in which the courts came down firmly on the side of reasonableness and common sense. Further evidence of a healthier climate, as he notes.

6 responses to “Tackling the playground claim culture

  1. Points well made , but this may as much as anything be just about advertorial income from the company who did the ‘research’, especially along with all the adverts on the web version. Other articles in the Mail does on risk and compensation even have pop up adverts of the compensation claims companies.

  2. Excellent stuff Tim.

    If only we had similar material in support of the other aspects of play!

    A role for a national children-related organisation, methinks, in partnership with the 4 nations play bodies?

  3. At one time, the only arena in which children’s lives were invaded was through organized sport. When children felt overwhelmed by the “rulification” of their free time, they would simply go off and create their own games.

    Now, adult intervention in children’s activities is tantamount to an invasive disease where the needs of children are less important than the fears of adults. Once, childhood references were more in line with adventure, curiosity, daring, awe, testing one’s abilities, challenging one’s perspectives, dealing with difficulties and overcoming fears. , ,

    Today, adult obsessions revolve around risk, safety, protection, support, compensation, legal liabilities. . . Childhood has never before been so stupidly complex and irrational.

    It’s high time we stopped frightening our children into total submission, into a total catatonic state of virtual-reality nothingness within which they are now so often retreating. Our self-esteem issues, related to not being “seen to be” good parents because we have not anticipated a fall or broken bone, are becoming dangerous to the “safety” of our children.

    If childhood accidents are more serious today it is because our progeny no longer have the abilities to face any adversity or irregularity. They’ve been prevented from being children – from learning about life due to our fears, our hovering and our over-protectiveness – as well as the incessant pressures by insurance companies and litigators.

    We’ve been taught that we can compensate for accidents by blaming and getting paid – thus assuaging guilt feelings. . . Everything is about money today – not about children and their needs to grow, dare and experiment with life. How horrid it must be to be a child today. Rant over.

    • oldnp – wish I had written that ! But would add that school Headteachers & Mr Gove too should consider the implications of imprisoning kids.

      • Thank you Mr Stratton, As we don’t live in a vacuum, the value systems in our environment must incorporate a total adult mood make-over – not only piecemeal subjective reactions. We’re responsible for whatever is – whatever our positions. The first order of the day is to once again respect and appreciate who our children are – both as mine canaries warning us of what is wrong today and as guarantors of the well being of humanity in the future. Time to put aside our 40 year old navel-gazing teenager attitudes and grow up – before it’s too late. . . .

  4. Pingback: Tackling the playground claim culture | Bernard Spiegal

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