The DCSF claim their safety and play strategies make children safer than ever in primary schools. But has this increase in health and safety come at the cost of life experience and fun? Suzanne O’Connell investigates

Health and safety has a lot to answer for. Some might say that it has seriously curtailed the experiences of children in relation to school trips and after-school clubs and activities. It has made many teachers think twice about a whole range of visits and opportunities that children would love and benefit from. However, it has also saved lives and prevented injuries. Yet, how many more accidents might have been avoided if children had been exposed to calculated risk at an earlier stage in their school life? 

It seems that within the DCSF the question is also being raised – are we trying to protect our children too much? At the moment this is mostly in relation to the provision of play equipment and parents’ perception of the dangers of outside play. The questions are being asked, but is it a real change of direction or are we merely being provided with more rhetoric and ‘things to do’? 

Safety and the Children’s Plan
In the Children’s Plan: Building Brighter Futures (December 2007) the government has clearly stated its intentions in relation to children and safety. It acknowledges the difficulties faced by parents who, on the one hand, want their children to have the freedom to play outside but are also anxious about the level of danger out there. In response to this the Children’s Plan makes a commitment to enable schools and local authorities to ‘take a proportionate approach to health and safety to allow children to take risks whilst staying safe.’ Key areas of reform identified in the Children’s Plan are listed below.

Key areas of reform in the Children’s Plan

  • The promotion of understanding and management of risks.
  • Reduction of risks associated with media and the commercial world.
  • Reduction in the number of accidents, both on the roads and in the home, particularly within vulnerable families.
  • Tackling bullying.
  • Ensuring that children’s and young people’s concerns are listened to.
  • Fostering greater collaboration to keep children safe.
  • The prevention of unsuitable people from working with children.

The following quotation from p45 of the children’ plan highlights an awareness that some activities have been dropped due to teacher’s concerns about litigation:

‘We are particularly interested in addressing situations where perceptions of the requirements of health and safety rules, or local interpretation of those rules, can be such that they prevent pupils from enjoying valuable learning experiences both within school and on school visits.’

The Children’s Plan is a broad document of which safety is only one aspect. It signposts to the ‘Staying Safe Action Plan’ as a more comprehensive programme to improve children’s safety. It is this plan that is the main indicator of the DCSF’s commitment to redress the balance between risk and safety. But before the action plan came the consultation.

Staying Safe consultation
In July 2007 the Staying Safe consultation was launched. Between July and October there were over a thousand written responses to some key questions. The consultation emphasised the importance of everyone being responsible for helping to keep children safe and the need to raise awareness of the issues involved. On p7 it highlights the fact that higher risks are faced by children in lower socio-economic groups:

‘Children from deprived backgrounds are at a much higher risk of accidents than those from better off households – 13 times more likely to die from accidental injuries and 37 times more likely to die because of smoke, fire or flames.’

The aim of the consultation was to start a debate and to invite opinion. It identified areas for action and suggested proposals for tackling these issues. Respondents from the consultation agreed that it is important to strike the balance between protection and risk-taking. Following on from the consultation came the action plan.

Staying Safe Action Plan
The Staying Safe Action Plan was launched earlier this year following the consultation. It is structured around three tiers of safeguarding: universal, targeted and responsive and is linked to a new PSA (public service agreement) to improve children and young people’s safety with four indicators to help monitor progress. The indicators are:

  • Percentage of children who have experienced bullying.
  • Percentage of children referred to children’s social care who received an initial assessment within seven working days.
  • Hospital admissions caused by unintentional and deliberate injuries to children.
  • Preventable child deaths.

Although there aren’t specific targets related to these, it is expected that there will be progress against them. So what does the action plan indicate we must do to make our country a safe place for children and young people? Some of the main headlines relevant to schools are highlighted below.

The Staying Safe Action Plan
Safety education takes a high profile in this guidance. The importance of everyone working together and the responsibility of all of us for children’s safety is a clear focus of the message. It is anticipated that more information and safeguarding advice should be made available particularly in relation to vulnerable groups and the third sector (voluntary groups such as faith organisations and helplines).

Protecting vulnerable children and supporting their families is a key theme throughout. It is suggested that raising the profile of health visitors at an early stage, supporting families with home safety and looking at the risks in areas of deprivation will make a difference to the communities who suffer from accidents most. There is a commitment to trying different approaches to extend services and support to the ‘hard-to-reach’ with an emphasis upon parenting and intervention where necessary.

Issues in relation to bullying are covered. Again, a controversial area in terms of its definition, scope and methods of addressing. The guidance Safe to Learn: Embedding Anti-bullying Work in Schools provides more detailed information about how bullying might be tackled in schools. The Staying Safe Action Plan makes particular recommendations in relation to tackling bullying outside of school; gang culture and difficulties experienced in particular neighbourhoods. Peer mentoring is given a high profile and there is the intention of reviewing the complaints procedure.

Road safety is covered as a concern. There is an expressed commitment to the 2007 Child Road Safety Strategy with accompanying material for all age groups and a dissemination programme for Kerbcraft pedestrian training. To support this there are plans to tackle the level of driving skills in society through driver education, additional traffic calming and more

20 mph zones.

The importance and dangers of ICT and the new technologies available to us has been explored by the Byron Review. This review of the impact of playing video games and using the internet was published in March 2008 and provides evidence about the benefits and potential risks of new technologies. It outlines what is being done to minimise the risks, and what more needs to be done.

So what does this document have to say about playing safe? Throughout the consultation different groups and individuals drew attention to the lack of risk we allow children to take. The action plan suggests that a publicity campaign should be launched to encourage parents to allow their children to play outside. The consultation also pointed out that we should be providing the facilities for young people to use and need to consider how these might be developed.

In answer to these concerns the action plan proposes that the DCSF will work with the Play Safety Forum to help find the balance between risk and safety and increase the number of available playgrounds through rebuilding or renewing. For schools this will mean new guidance in the Out and About package and a revision of the Health and Safety of Pupils on Educational Visits guidance. As stated in the Children’s Plan – risk must be ‘proportionate’.

The breadth and scope of the Staying Safe Action Plan is extensive, incorporating proposed actions for forced marriages, drugs education, people trafficking, prostitution, protection of children from sex offenders to name but a few additional themes. The array of issues underlines the extraordinary complexity of finding the best way to ‘stay safe’ in our society.

In relation to finding that proportionate balance between play and risk the consultation document Fair Play is the next stage.

Fair Play consultation
You could be forgiven for not keeping up with all the guidance, review, documentation and consultation currently being produced and circulated. Fair Play is yet another consultation. It will close on 18 July.

Its main focus is the provision of outdoor play areas which are safe, interesting and looked after. It acknowledges the need for balance between risk and safe play but emphasises the actual facilities available. Although the guidance reiterates the government’s commitment to play there are those who would question whether this is evident in practice.

Some of the key themes of the consultation include:

  • play in the early years
  • the role of Sure Start children’s centres
  • play facilities in schools
  • opportunities for physical education and sport
  • creativity in play
  • play for children visiting parents in prison
  • play for disabled children.

Links with the Staying Safe Action Plan are evident, eg tackling bullying in public places, crime on the streets, road safety. Of particular interest here are those consultation areas around the risk and benefits of play. The DCSF is seeking views on how we might increase parents’ knowledge and understanding and tackle the negative perceptions of young people. They query whether excessive health and safety fears are causing local authorities to buy unstimulating and unpopular play equipment.

Fair Play touches on the Children’s Plan reference to the impact of the threat of litigation. The following question is certainly one that has been discussed in our staff room and I suspect in many more: ‘Are worries about being sued leading to play areas that are dull and unstimulating?’

It is perhaps a little disappointing that this question does not extend further into the activities and experiences that have been dropped due to the fear of being sued. Does the questioning in this consultation go far enough and are the right questions being asked?

Overall, this is an interesting document with some lovely case studies and wonderful pictures of ideal play spaces. To those snowed down by guidance and consultation documents it may seem a million miles away. At least questions are being asked, although we might wonder if they are the right ones. 

If you would like to get involved in the consultation it is available at the final Play Strategy is to be published in autumn 2008.

In conclusion
There is certainly a commitment here to raising the profile of play and a phenomenally lucrative range of opportunities for outside play space providers. Much of what is said is good and the plans and actions are highly ambitious. I do wonder at the rate at which these strategies are formulated and our capacity to take them on. I’m not sure whether what we are seeing here will produce the balance we are looking for or will simply replace one set of issues with another.