This post explores how the real-time decisions of educators, playworkers and other staff who oversee children fit into the overall risk management process, and how they are held to account for those decisions. I have written it at the suggestion of the UK Play Safety Forum. The PSF would welcome comments on the position set out here – as would I.
I will start with describing a real-life scenario from a Forest School session run by Bayonne Nursery a few years ago. (Those who have heard me talk on risk will recognise it from a video clip that I often show.) A group of four-year-old children are exploring an area of woodland. After clearing away fallen branches from around a large tree trunk that crosses over a dry ditch, three girls start to shimmy across. Two succeed, while the third becomes alarmed and gives up. Forest school-trained educators, present throughout, do not intervene at any point – not even to give encouragement or warnings. This is despite the fact that at points, things look like they might be getting challenging, uncomfortable or even slightly dangerous.
In staffed situations such as schools, early years settings, out of school/free time facilities, outdoor learning programmes and playwork settings, the real-time judgements of front-line staff (paid and voluntary) about whether, when and how to intervene are fundamental to shaping children’s experiences. Interventions and decisions are informed by staff’s values and understandings about the goals and objectives of their setting and practice: and crucially by their thinking about risk. They are highly sensitive to circumstances, and may happen in a matter of seconds.
The overall process, labelled dynamic risk benefit assessment (RBA) in Managing Risk in Play Provision [pdf link], is complex, fluid, largely intuitive, and difficult to document. In staffed settings, dynamic RBA may well be the most significant part of risk management. Yet as Managing Risk in Play Provision says, it may be undervalued by risk assessment perspectives that focus on the need for written evidence that procedures have been followed.
So how should staff and organisations show they are being reasonable in their approach to dynamic RBA? Some organisations have developed analytical tools such as flowcharts and decision trees in an attempt to set out how decision-making processes might work. Learning through Landscapes has one on its website, and a group of playworkers from Wrexham and Conwy Councils and Glyndwr University has also developed something along similar lines.
Such tools may be helpful in opening up professional debate about relevant factors and options in different circumstances. But how useful are they in capturing sound decision-making in dynamic RBA situations, which may happen so quickly and be dealt with so intuitively that there is no time for reflection, let alone record-keeping? There is a real risk that such tools could be seen not simply as a prompt for discussion, but as a measure of compliance: a requirement that staff are expected to follow – and expected to show that they have followed through documentation or other records.
It is hard to see how this demand for an ‘audit trail’ can be met without adding to the burden of staff, and without distorting the very decision-making that such processes are supposed to be supporting.
Rather than trying to document decision-making through claiming that it is supported by a particular process, a more practical and promising approach may be to emphasise the role of professional competence. This could be shown through relevant experience, skills, qualifications, supervision procedures, professional development and evidence of sound judgements in the past. Good practice in dynamic RBA is also likely to be supported through giving staff opportunities to reflect on their experiences and practice, for instance through ensuring they have space and time to discuss minor adverse experiences and ‘near misses’.
Can sound decision-making in dynamic RBA be ‘audited’ or proven through any kind of documentation? Are flowcharts or decision trees valuable tools, or traps? Should we reject the demand for case-by-case evidence that procedures were followed, and instead focus on the importance of relevant experience, knowledge and skills, supported by time for reflection?
My own view is that when it comes to questions about the soundness of dynamic RBA judgements, the right place to focus is the competences of the individual or staff team, rather than compliance with any procedure. Whether or not you agree, I would welcome your thoughts and comments, and will feed these into upcoming debates at Play Safety Forum meetings.