Don't let media drive Health & Safety and Vetting & Barring Reviews

15 Jun

"Health and safety risks stop children playing ‘pin the tail on the donkey’", “HSE bans this", "Risk assessment is too complicated", "Health and safety rules stop classroom experiments", "Graduates are banned from throwing mortar boards", "Health and safety bans school ties", "Health and safety rules take the adventure out of playgrounds", "If a pupil is hurt, the teacher is likely to be sued".

These headlines are the all too familiar lines we read in the papers or hear in the pub "it says in the paper health and safety gone mad!" but all are exposed as myths by the Health and Safety Executive's excellent "Myth of the Month" feature.

The Government has announced a review of health and safety laws and there are already headlines about "daft" health and safety laws and one-off examples of over-zealous, poorly trained "jobs-worth" official, no doubt under pressure to conform meet some spurious target or 'guidelines' that aren't compulsory.

We hope that the review will not pander to popular prejudices but look at how funding and staff training can address concerns about health and safety and possible litigation that are largely media-driven and not supported by the very small number of accidents and amounts of compensation paid in recent years.

Health and safety concerns have stopped or restricted many school visits and that is a great shame. Voice has long been supportive of school staff taking pupils out on visits, even when others were advising their members against it.

School visits can offer life-changing experiences and challenges for those who take part in them, and there is some excellent guidance and support available to schools, particularly through the Learning Outside the Classroom scheme. Safely conducted and properly supervised, education outside the classroom is an integral part of learning.

There has also been considerable media furore about the Vetting and Barring Scheme. The Government is to put the Vetting and Barring Scheme on hold while it is reviewed and “fundamentally re-modelled“.

Putting the scheme on hold will be a relief to many. The sheer size and complexity of the system as it stood could have resulted in chaos. A review is needed to clarify and refine the system to ensure that it works properly.

The scheme had resulted in disproportionate bureaucracy and ran the risk of deterring volunteers. It had already been reviewed by Sir Roger Singleton (Drawing the Line).

However, we must remember why the scheme was introduced to protect children and hope that suspending it is motivated by a desire to make sure it works properly and not as a knee-jerk reaction to media pressure.

The media were, rightly, shocked by the Soham case that led to an overhaul of the system but then the pendulum swung too far the other way and they attacked the new system as too draconian. Famous authors used their celebrity to complain that they should be exempted from the rules.

We hope that suspension of the scheme does not result in excessive delay in reforming the system or in the rules being relaxed so far that we see media outrage over unsuitable people slipping through the net and calls for tougher rules again, resulting in a cycle of further inquiries, reports, delays and bureaucracy.

A balanced, measured approach is needed and an examination of what is meant by "common sense". The tabloids and populist pundits should not have ownership of that.

As a final thought, will the new wave of academies be able to cope with carrying out checks without the support of local authorities?

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