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Following the conviction and sentencing today of a headmaster over a playground accident which led to the death of a pupil, Steffan Groch, health and safety partner with law firm DWF and the headteacher's solicitor, offers some advice to schools
The successful prosecution of headmaster James Porter over the death of a pupil involved in a playground accident raises some important concerns for the education sector.
Mr Porter was found guilty of breaching health and safety law at Hillgrove School, Bangor, despite having a previously unblemished accident record during his 30 years in charge.
The prosecution by the Health & Safety Executive reflects the trend towards increased accountability for those in positions of authority. Schools now need to reflect upon their own policies and procedures and consider what would happen should a similar accident occur in their own grounds.
Although Mr Porter is planning an appeal, the judgment raises a number of questions regarding the duties imposed by the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 on those in the education sector.
The accident occurred during the morning break in July 2004 when three-year-old Kian Williams jumped down some steps in the playground within an area that was out of bounds to younger pupils. He sustained a head injury and died in hospital five weeks later having contracted the MRSA bug.
Although the steps themselves were not considered dangerous, a fundamental issue was the level of supervision and the fact that there was no barrier preventing children from accessing them.
At the time of the accident there was one teacher supervising 59 pupils in the playground, which is spilt into two levels. This was considered inadequate. The teacher had also left the playground unsupervised for around 30 seconds immediately before the accident whilst she attended to a visitor.
To protect themselves against liability, schools must be able to prove that they have taken all reasonable precautions to protect pupils from health and safety risks. Head teachers should pay particular attention to three key areas - risk assessments, supervision and staff training.
The decision emphasises the importance of ensuring that detailed risk assessments are carried out to identify potential hazards within the school grounds and that reasonable measures are taken to eliminate these. Headteachers must ask whether they are a "competent person" to complete this task under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.
For example, they must understand the principles of risk assessment and prevention, be capable of identifying potential hazards and designing and implementing strategies to eliminate or minimise these, and be up to date with health and safety legislation and best practice. If you are not confident in your ability to carry out a risk assessment, seek external help.
Although generic risk assessments are readily available on the internet, these do not take into consideration specific locations and would not be enough to satisfy a court that a school had fulfilled its legal duty. Risk assessments should be regularly reviewed and updated and all staff should be involved in the process and familiar with final drafts.
Consider carefully whether the level of supervision in the playground would be considered appropriate if it was the subject of a HSE investigation. Although there is a lack of specific guidance or agreed staffing ratios, it would depend upon factors such as the size and geography of the playground, any potential hazards, the number of children, their age range and ability, and any special needs or characteristics, such as children prone to running off.
Arrangements should be made in consultation with teaching staff. Staff should be aware that if they need to leave the playground, even for a matter of seconds, they must be replaced. The head must ensure that there is a system in place for this. Again, the head needs to consider whether he or she is "competent" to deal with the issue of supervision or whether it would be more appropriate to seek external help.
Staff need to be trained both at induction and regularly afterwards and the head needs to be convinced there are appropriate training systems in place to cover the following points:
• The areas to be supervised and arrangements for cover if the supervisor is involved in an incident.
• How exactly teachers should carry out supervision. For example they should not stand talking to each other, spend a long time with one group of pupils or standing still, but keep moving and try to vary their route.
• Whether the school grounds need to be restricted and gates or fences erected to provide a barrier. However remember that these fixtures themselves have associated risks such as children swinging from them and trapped fingers and would need to be risk assessed.
• Any specific areas requiring attention such as play equipment or areas where the teacher's view is obstructed.
• Identification of any pupils who need close supervision for example those with a particular medical need.
• What to do in the event of an accident.
• Who to report any issues to and how to record them.
• Training on first aid and medical techniques.
This list is not exhaustive as each school will have different circumstances and therefore arrangements will vary. Pupils as well as staff should be informed of arrangements regularly, but do not rely on pupils keeping within boundaries that are not clearly defined by boundaries.
Accidents can and do happen so it is crucial that schools are prepared for the worst.
Notes to editors
DWF is one of the fastest growing regional law firms in the UK and has recently merged with Ricksons. With over 830 people based in Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Preston, DWF provides a range of services grouped under the following practice areas:
Banking & Finance
DWF has developed extensive sector-specific expertise in a number of areas including: automotive, education, food, retail & leisure, legal expenses and resourcing. Further information on DWF is available via www.dwf.co.uk
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