Managing school playtimes safely
By Neil Coleman, OPAL outdoor play and learning mentor
In our work with schools we have found that misinformed views about risk, from nearly everyone involved, is the single most damaging factor in the provision of good quality play provision in primary schools. The purpose of this blog is to help adults provide better play for children by making sure that adults’ decisions on risk are up to date with the current legal and advisory framework.
What is meant by ‘safety’ in a schools context?
Clearly the word is closely related to the term ‘Safeguarding’, so are they really the same thing? No.
The simplest way of differentiating the two is to regard Safeguarding as covering the important areas of site security, online risks, sexual risks, parenting risks (dangers at home), mental risks (bullying, etc.) and so on whereas ‘safety’ refers largely to the physical risks (though social and emotional risk also feature) that pertain to schools, both within the buildings, to be managed separately, within outdoor breaktime activities and outdoor sports/games lessons.
The easiest way to differentiate between the two types of safety management appropriate within schools is to split them between the formal (i.e. teaching/learning activities, moving around the buildings, using the infrastructure, mealtimes, when pupils are under direct adult instruction during PE and sporting activities, etc.) and informal (i.e. all occasions when children have time to themselves away from direct adult control before, during and after the formal school day, including playtime activities such as ball games, using play structures, climbing trees, building dens, using mud kitchens, running around, play-fighting) functions.
Serious behavioural issues involving pupils do not come under this criteria. As the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance clearly states, “Violence between pupils is a school discipline matter and not reportable under RIDDOR, as it does not arise out of or in connection with a work activity.”
It is the outdoor breaktime element, ‘time for play’, that this article focuses on. Playtimes typically take up around 20% of the school day, making this element one of the most significant individual parts of their life throughout the many years that a child is at school. You may therefore wonder why it is that so little attention is paid to it by the majority of schools and by the government!
Within the scope of outdoor playtime safety can be included such factors as physical development/injury, mental wellbeing (resting periods, engagement in an enjoyable activity, verbal social interactions), contact with nature (an important element in promoting children’s holistic health), personal development (empathy and inter-personal relationships, social norms, character, resilience, persistence, etc. ), learning non-teachable skills (e.g. problem-solving, inspiration and inventiveness, ‘thinking outside the box’) and evolving childhood behaviour.
Interestingly, it is the non-teachable skills that school life, especially the current curriculum, is most weak on from Reception right through to KS4 because of the emphasis on literacy and numeracy at the expense of those creative and social skills that our business community keeps telling us is what they need most right now!
Yes, of course literacy and numeracy are vitally important and should never be anything less than a top priority but, as Ofsted itself says in its December 2017 Bold Beginnings document, education should be about “getting the balance right”, and therefore weighting the scales to chase rankings in just a couple of high-profile subjects is not enough to prepare all children for the world of work in the 21st century.
In fact BB quotes a Headteacher, who says; “high standards in reading, writing and mathematics are a given, but the wider, social experiences of the school community are also important…”
So it is a fine achievement that millions of children now leave education with excellent academic qualifications for working life (though there is clearly much still to do, especially for children from deprived communities) but they also need skills in other key areas if they are to meet the needs of employers.
These skills can only be learned through playing outside every day in the right environment for learning. They cannot be effectively taught in a classroom and in sports lessons they fail to reach a large number of pupils (around 30-40%).
This improved play environment must include elements of challenge, and therefore risk, if enjoyable learning and development are to accrue in every child, which is where a competent understanding of safety best practice becomes crucial.
The OPAL Introduction meeting
Upon visiting a school for the first time, it usually doesn’t take long for the conversation between an OPAL Mentor and a Headteacher to turn to matters of managing ‘elf n’ safety’ during playtimes.
And soon afterwards, once the OPAL Mentor begins explaining the legal, and especially the government Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recommended way that all schools should manage their playtimes in terms of children’s safety, you’ll often hear the sentence “that’s not what we were told” uttered with puzzlement by the Headteacher.
Inevitably, the next question from OPAL has to be “has anyone at this school, or anyone from the local authority who is telling you how to manage your play provision, ever actually been on a RoSPA Play Inspection Training course, or had any formal play training before?”
Invariably, the answer is ‘no’, particularly on specialised playwork training.
It is highly unlikely that a lunchtime playground supervisor (teacher or part-time staff) will have received any formal playwork training at all (organised games and skipping lessons don’t count) and the average council Health and Safety Officer/Advisor is normally only trained in ‘workplace’ safety, which is appropriate for all other parts of school property but completely inappropriate for playtime safety matters, as will be explained in more detail below.
The school’s fixed play equipment, the trim-trail, climbing frame, fixed tyres and the ‘impact absorbing’ surface below, should automatically be checked for damage and wear every few days by a trained member of school staff, and also be externally checked at least once a year (by someone independent of the school and the Local Authority who has been on the full RoSPA course – i.e. a member of the Register of Play Inspectors) but that and a bog-standard annual risk assessment are usually just about it for most schools.
Many Headteachers then assume that’s the job done and dusted, so all they have to worry about for the rest of the year is the paperwork they have been told to fill in, every time a child has a bump or a scrape. This means that for the management of one fifth of every school day (or one day each week) just about every nursery, primary and secondary school in this country is currently operating whilst completely reliant on;
1) Advice from somebody at the council whose never been trained specifically on playground management, and may well be ill-informed
2) Guesswork by the school’s own lunchtime staff, and
3) Blind luck, often topped off with a liberal coating of fear.
This is all totally contrary to current HSE advice and doesn’t follow the law correctly.
Managing playtimes safely and correctly
So what exactly is the right way to go about managing safety during playtimes?
Are you one of those schools that has been told to fill out form after form, and post them all off every time a child has a minor bump or a small cut in the playground? Or do you resist the edicts sent down from ‘on high’ and do things correctly, only reporting the most serious playtime incidents, where a hospital visit is involved?
Many schools do get it right but HSE still says it receives far too many unnecessary reports each year on minor playtime incidents that simply don’t have to be reported.
What HSE says
To unpick this confusing situation, let’s start by looking at what it says in the official Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance for schools, fully endorsed by DfE, which is where local government Health & Safety Advisors get their presumed authority from (note the changed job title of ‘advisor’, implying advice-giving only, not ‘officer’ any more, the old job title which implied some level of direct responsibility).
Those bothersome RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013)  forms from the HSE that are kept in the office and filled out for every medical incident say this;
- Most incidents that happen in schools or on school trips do not need to be reported. Only in limited circumstances will an incident need notifying to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) under RIDDOR.
- RIDDOR requires employers (i.e. schools) and others in control of premises to report certain accidents, diseases and dangerous occurrences arising out of or in connection with ‘work’.
- The duty to notify and report rests with the ‘responsible person’. For incidents involving pupils and school staff, this is normally the main employer at the school (often the Headteacher and their school management team)
- Incidents involving contractors working on school premises are normally reportable by their employers. Contractors could be builders, maintenance staff, cleaners or catering staff.
Note the emphasis on ‘work’, as separate to non-workplace activities such as play activities.
There is a dedicated series of sections below the initial statements covering those special parts of school life that are separate from classroom (and all other parts of the building) activities. They include particular guidance on school sports and on playtimes.
- Not all sports injuries to pupils are reportable under RIDDOR, as organised sports activities can lead to sports injuries that are not connected with how schools manage the risks from the activity. The essential test is whether the accident was caused by the condition, design or maintenance of the premises or equipment, or because of inadequate arrangements for supervision of an activity. If an accident that results in an injury arises because of the normal rough and tumble of a game, the accident and resulting injury would not be reportable.
- Most playground accidents due to collisions, slips, trips and falls are not normally reportable. Incidents are only reportable where the injury results in a pupil either being killed or taken directly to a hospital for treatment. Either is only reportable if they were caused by an accident that happened from or in connection with a ‘work activity’.
‘Work activities’ include incidents arising because either:
- the condition of the premises or equipment was poor, eg badly maintained play equipment; or
- the school had not provided adequate supervision, eg where particular risks were identified, but no action was taken to provide suitable supervision. e.g. where particular risks were identified by the school in a suitable and sufficient Risk Benefit Assessment (see below) and ensure suitable supervision (there are no fixed rules on ratio of staff to pupils so it comes down to the Head teacher’s judgement of what is the appropriate staffing level on that day).
Violence between pupils is a school discipline matter and not reportable under RIDDOR, as it does not arise out of, or in connection with, a work activity.
So the important point for every Headteacher to note, rarely if ever mentioned by a H&S Advisor, is that there is an important difference between what you should do in the classroom and all parts of the site where the emphasis is on ‘work activities’ (as I’ve explained above, this covers everything from moving around the building to lessons in class, PE lessons and sports), and what you should do for ‘playtime activities’, where no working is implied, other than for the safety of the working adult staff who are there to supervise the play activities.
In the OPAL Primary Programme the OPAL Mentor will take the school lunchtime staff through the proper Risk-Benefit Assessment process for properly assessing playtime risks in Development Meeting 2.
The official guidance today
Few Local Authority Health and Safety Advisors will know about this, but as well as RIDDOR updating in 2013, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has also recently reinforced the official government guidance for playtime safety management in schools and other leisure locations with their 2012 statement Children’s Play and Leisure: Promoting a Balanced Approach.
This statement makes it very clear that:
- Play is important for children’s well-being and development
- When planning and providing play opportunities, the goal is not to eliminate risk, but to weigh up the risks and benefits
- Those providing play opportunities should focus on controlling the real risks, while securing or increasing the benefits – not on the paperwork
- Accidents and mistakes happen during play – but fear of litigation and prosecution has been blown out of proportion
Download the guidance for the full explanation but the key point to note is that paperwork should be kept to the absolute minimum. It is the instances of serious harm, as described in RIDDOR, which staff should be watching out for.
Staff should not be getting distracted by every little bump and scrape (and not all running in with blue lights flashing every time a child starts to cry – look to check if it is really as serious as the noise suggests before you react) and if the play provision is good enough, most children should be too busy playing to notice they’ve got a scraped knee anyway! The Health and Safety Executive have a whole section of their website just dedicated to debunking health and safety myths including the one about conkers and the one about toilet roles!
Nasty head-clashes, which should be rare (at worst perhaps one or two per term?) if children are given full freedom to spread out and play across the whole of the school grounds all year round, are obviously a different situation from a bit of gravel rash on a hand, so be sensible about what you treat and what you report and you can then keep eyes where they should be, on the children at all times.
Any H&S person trying to tell a school anything other than this sensible guidance is completely out-of-date with their knowledge! Please point them towards the HSE guidance because this, and only this, is the proper advice.
What about parents?
The best way of reducing the likelihood of a civil action against a school by a distraught parent shocked by the news that a child has injured themselves (or hoping for some easy cash) is to address any concerns ahead of time, by adopting a bespoke Play Policy immediately, ahead of introducing better playtimes. All OPAL schools do this, which is how OPAL can offer clients some excellent examples to draw ideas from, so that nobody has to reinvent the wheel on this important issue.
A sound Play Policy that parents can see is actually considered a good idea by HSE too.
Talk to parents, invite them in for a presentation and chat (OPAL helps with this) and ask them for their thoughts on playtimes, and always ensure that as soon as you have a draft ready for checking, they (also governors, staff and pupils) can understand the school’s new policy on play, just as is required for all other school policies. Schools are encouraged, on a regular basis, to include the issue of ‘risky play’ in assembly, using images to spark discussions amongst pupils on what is safe to do when playing.
Risk-Benefit Assessment vs. Risk Assessment
I’ll end with a brief explanation of Risk-Benefit Assessment, for those who aren’t familiar with it.
All Risk Assessments must be carried out by someone with a good level of common sense and some experience of the issue. The term officially used is suitable and sufficient, which in the case of children’s play means that every adult is capable of making an assessment of play risks that is both suitable and also sufficient in scope to meet HSE expectations. It is because we all played throughout our childhood years that we should all be able to recognise the risks and know how to manage them sensibly.
As long as a person isn’t negligent, i.e. we identify a risk but no action was taken to put things safe immediately and put right quickly thereafter, then we are doing things as expected by HSE.
- Risk Assessment
In standard risk assessments for workplaces (e.g. factories, construction sites, schools, offices, etc.) the aim is to reduce the possibility of an incident to the minimum whilst still enabling the work to function. The HSE provides a (slightly fussy) template for this, as well as there being lots of experienced Advisors around the country (large organisations will have permanent staff on the payroll) to ensure good practice. The template has been honed and developed over the past couple of decades to be little more than a straightforward risk rating calculation and a short narrative nowadays. However, it is very unlikely that typical H&S Advisors will have received specialised Risk-Benefit Assessment training for children’s play, so they are not going to be any more competent to make decisions about risks in children’s play at school than you are.
Some Local Authorities have even been known try to ‘bully’ a school into taking the path of least risk simply, as they see it, to reduce their chances of getting a claim from an upset parent to the minimum (putting money before children’s fundamental development needs?) but if you’ve followed the HSE advice above correctly, then you are already doing a far better job of reducing the risks than local authority advisors can ever offer!
- Risk Benefit Assessment
Here is where you can find the template for risk-benefit assessment.
Follow the worked example for assistance but as you’ll see it is both simple and also based very much in common sense. As a principle, if you cannot immediately identify some clear and obvious benefits for children’s development and life-learning from the activity you are assessing, then it shouldn’t be there. Remove it!
All activities should be assessed at least annually but try to keep the assessment reasonably broad (i.e. assess a whole climbing structure as one, not a form for every single possible activity you can think of). Remember, the objective is to keep all paperwork to a minimum so that staff can focus on keeping children safe from serious harm.
For a full explanation of how risks in play should be assessed there is the freely downloadable version of Managing Risk in Play Provision guide.
In essence, with RBA the big difference is that there must be a recognition that children learn much (the benefits) from encountering a level of ‘managed’ challenge, introduced by you as responsible adult, which they can accrue recognised benefits from experiencing on a daily basis, should they wish to do so as they play. So the aim is to achieve a good balance between the benefits of an activity and the associated risks, not total elimination of the risks. The fact is that many beneficial play activities come with a measure of risks attached, and without children experiencing and eventually overcoming the risks there can be no worthwhile benefits.
Our role as adults is to recognise those risks, to ensure children can also recognise them (no nasty surprises) and to ensure that there are clear benefits from the risk being there.
The definition of a Risk is a Hazard (the thing that might cause injury) multiplied by the likelihood (the odds) of the incident happening.
So there might be something you can think of in a playground that would, if it happened, be very hazardous but also highly unlikely, such as a car ploughing into the site. In that case you must weigh up the value of everything and decide what to do about it, considering how serious it could be (very) by how likely it might happen (hopefully very unlikely). What you do about it is up to you but you must record your decision on the template and act accordingly. You might move the play site further from the road, put up a solid barrier, or decide that it is very unlikely to ever happen (based on history) and carry on as you are.
Likewise, there might be a very low-level hazard (e.g. stinging nettles) somewhere in your site. With lots of nettles growing around the site it becomes quite likely that a child will sting themselves from time to time.
As an action, you could decide to strim the nettles down, but that would of course eliminate the chance of children learning that nettles sting while they are at school (they’ll still find out the hard way one day, unless they are kept away from nature permanently, which is far more harmful), or you might instead teach the children about nettles and let them manage their own experiences. It’s entirely up to you.
In the end, what you should be aiming for is a good, rich and varied mix of low and medium level risks around the site that all have some obvious (to you) and different developmental or learning benefits in being there. No benefit = get rid.
Some benefits not present in what you are currently offering in your playground? Introduce features that enable accrual of those desired benefits and record your thinking on the RBA template.
Remember to review your RBAs on a regular (e.g. annual) basis but don’t write an assessment out for every little thing you do, just do it when a major new change has been introduced to the play environment.
Interestingly, the same basic advice applies to all off-site excursions by schools. You can find out more on the HSE website.
“Health and safety law in Great Britain has an enduring principle – that those who create risks are best placed to control them, and that they should do so in a reasonable and sensible way.” Judith Hackitt H&SE Chair 2015
We are here to help. OPAL is the UK’s most experienced organisation supporting whole school improvements to the quality of play. If you want to find out more click here. If you wan to drop us a line or have a chat click here.