Many schools are happy to leave assessment of health and safety on work experience placements to outside agencies, but does this allow them to properly exercise their duty of care? Ruth Bradbury examines the problems and provides practical advice on how schools can play a more active role in the process

In recent years there have been substantial developments in the way that schools offer their students experience of the world of work. Since 2006 there has been a statutory requirement for Key Stage 4 students to undertake enterprise education and work-related learning. This, combined with the broadening of the 14-19 curriculum to incorporate applied and vocational learning, has led to an expansion of the workplace experiences available to young people during their school career. While this is undoubtedly a positive move in terms of preparing them for life, there are of course a number of issues relating to the health, safety and welfare of young people taking part in work-related learning, which need to be addressed by schools.

School-led risk assessment

Up until now, many schools have used specialist agencies – education business partnerships for example – to assess the health, safety and welfare risks of work experience placements. However, I would suggest that there are three main reasons why this practice is beginning to change, and why it will continue to do so. First of all, many schools are responding to the increasingly flexible nature of the 14-19 curriculum by offering workplace opportunities which do not fit into the traditional ‘block’ work-experience model. Whereas in the past a whole year group would all take part in a fixed period of work experience at the same time, newer models could involve some students taking longer blocks in working environments specifically related to their learning, whereas others may gain their experience from one or two days each week for a whole term or year. This means that the nature and type of placements will be varied, and that some may be arranged at short notice in order to be responsive to particular aspects of learning. This model would not fit as easily with the ‘one size fits all’ approach that is currently employed by some external assessors. A second reason for change is the opportunities offered by the increasingly diverse nature of the school workforce: five or six years ago, a member of teaching staff would have been responsible for managing and organising work experience placements. They would have had to fit student interviews and employer liaison in between their teaching responsibilities, and simply would not have had the time or expertise to become involved in health and safety and risk assessment. Nowadays, however, schools are employing increasing numbers of professional staff from backgrounds other than teaching in a range of roles, including the management and implementation of work-related learning. These staff can come from backgrounds which include health and safety expertise, and they may well have the flexibility and capability to carry out duties which teachers could not have done.

At the end of this article I have provided an example job description/person specification for a work experience coordinator. There would, of course, be no requirement for this member of staff to have a teaching background.

The third and final reason relates to the importance of risk assessment as a ‘real-life’ activity rather than just a paper exercise. To be effective, a risk assessment needs to be carried out by, or in partnership with, the person who will have hands-on responsibility for the student and their activities. Ideally, this process should also involve a representative of the school as well, as it has a legal duty of care for students (see ‘School responsibilities’ below).

While the vast majority of outside-agency risk assessments are carried out in partnership with the relevant staff in the workplace, it is often the case that the school is copied in rather than taking an active part in the process. Furthermore, as with the use of any outside agency, there is the risk that the school may not be as fully informed or in control of the assessment than they would have been if they had overseen it themselves. Given the above it can be argued that it would make sense for schools to at least consider taking a more active role in the health and safety side of work-related learning. In the remainder of this article, therefore, I shall provide an overview of the legal framework covering workplace learning for students. I shall then provide details of the kind of information required for schools, employers and parents and offer some suggestions for the risk assessment process.

Legal and regulatory framework

The 1996 Education Act, amended by Section 112 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, enables students in years 10 and 11 to take part in work experience programmes when arranged by the school and/or the local authority. This clarifies previous legislation which, since the raising of the school leaving age in 1973, had been ambiguous as to what work-related activities were acceptable for children under the age of 16. While on work experience, students are regarded as ‘young people’ in the eyes of the law (defined as any employee under the age of 18), and specific provision has to be made for them (see below).

Employer responsibilities

In terms of health and safety law, specifically the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, work experience students are regarded as employees of the organisation providing the placement. The employer, therefore, has the same responsibilities as it does to the rest of its staff – ie ‘to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees’. Employers also have a legal responsibility to devise and implement a health and safety policy, and to undertake risk assessment of workplace activities. The 1999 regulations also introduce the requirement for employers to make particular provision for young people, including:

  • assessing risks before they start work
  • ensuring that risk assessments take into account their lack of maturity and experience, and that they may be less aware of potential risks than an older employee
  • taking account of risk assessments when considering whether or not young people should be allowed to participate in activities
  • informing the parents of any child below the statutory school leaving age of the outcomes of any risk assessment undertaken, including control measures implemented.

There are additional requirements which need to be complied with. First of all, any employer offering work experience or work-related learning placements should have valid employer’s liability and public liability insurance, and they should also make sure that they notify their insurers that they will be taking students on work experience. Secondly, while they are able to participate in most work activities, students on placements must not operate dangerous machinery, carry out manual handling tasks or handle dangerous substances. Any activities of this nature need to be identified in the risk assessment (see below). Finally, work experience placements are covered by child protection legislation, which is discussed below.

School responsibilities
While the employer providing the placement has the primary responsibility for the health and safety of work experience students, the school nonetheless still retains a legal duty of care. Work experience coordinators therefore need to be reasonably satisfied that the placement provider can ensure the health, safety and welfare of the student. It is therefore the school’s responsibility to (a) decide whether the proposed placement is suitable for children in general and, just as importantly, (b) determine whether a particular child is suitable for the placement. In most cases, this last point is something that only school staff, with their own particular knowledge of the child in question, will be able to do.

Procedures for placements

Before the start of the placement, a representative of the school (eg the work experience coordinator) should meet with the employer offering the placement at the employer’s premises. The person who will have responsibility for supervising the student must be present at the meeting, and the following items should be covered:

  • Clarification of the legal and insurance responsibilities as outlined above.
  • An outline of the key duties to be undertaken by the student during the placement.
  • Any relevant information that may assess the risk assessment – eg disability, allergies, special educational needs, etc.
  • Full risk assessment of the placement, which takes into account the youth and inexperience of the student together with any individual issues identified above. This should be conducted jointly by the employer (including the student’s main supervisor) and the school representative.
  • Exchange of contact details for the school representative and the employer. If the placement is to extend beyond school hours (which is often the case) then an out-of-hours school contact must also be provided.
  • Confirmation that the student will not normally be working alone regularly or substantially with only one other person unless they have full Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) clearance (see below).

In addition, the employer should be required to provide a copy of their health and safety policy (a legal requirement for all organisations employing more than five people) and evidence of their employer’s and public liability insurance. They should also be asked to provide confirmation in writing that they have advised their insurers that they are participating in a work experience scheme involving young people who are below the minimum school leaving age. The meeting is also an opportunity to provide the employer with written guidance on their responsibilities in relation to placements. I would suggest the HSE guidance The Right Start and/or the DCSF publication Work Experience: A Guide for Employers (see end of article for links). The DCSF booklet includes a very useful checklist (Annex C) which employers can use to ensure that they provide a satisfactory health and safety briefing for students at the start of the placement. As with any other off-site activities, the school has a duty to provide details of work experience or work-based learning placements to parents in advance, and to request formal permission for their child to participate. Information distributed to parents should include:

  • details of the employer, including location and nature of business
  • information on travel arrangements, including any associated costs
  • details of the main duties and activities their child will be undertaking
  • an outline of the hours their child will be working, including information on breaks and how they will be spent
  • information on any significant hazards/risks identified in the risk assessment, together with confirmation of the measures taken to reduce or eliminate them
  • the name and number of the school contact, including an out-of-hours number if the placement extends beyond the school day
  • the name and contact details of the person responsible for their child in the workplace.

At the start of the placement, the employer must provide an initial health and safety briefing to the student (as mentioned above, Annex 3 of the DCSF Guide for Employers is very useful as a checklist). During the placement, the employer must also ensure that they undertake ‘ongoing risk assessment’ of activities – ie if the student is to take part in an activity that was not anticipated in the original risk assessment, then additional consideration will need to be given before s/he can participate. Depending on the particular situation, this can be done informally or may need more formal recording and/or specific parental permission. For example, if a student is working in a care home and they are invited to accompany staff and residents to a local shop, then it would be sufficient for their supervisor to remind him/her about road safety. If, however, the student was invited to accompany staff and students on an outdoor activities course, then formal risk assessment would need to be undertaken, the school informed and parental permission requested.

Risk assessment

In a nutshell, risk assessment is the process of working out the dangers of a given activity and thinking of ways to reduce or eliminate those dangers. Risk assessment is actually an instinctive process that we all undertake every day of our lives – when driving our cars, crossing the road with our children, climbing a ladder to change a light bulb, etc. As organisations have legal responsibilities in relation to the health and safety of their staff and others, the formalisation and recording of this process is required. This is especially important within schools, bearing in mind our additional ‘duty of care’ to young people under the age of 16. Risk assessments can take many forms depending on your school and/or your local authority procedures. However, they all follow the same process of assessing the combination of hazard and risk of an activity, and the fundamental questions that they ask are universal ones, as follows: 1. What could go wrong? (What are the hazards?) 2. How bad could it be? (What is the hazard level?) 3. How likely is it? (What is the risk level?) 4. What measures are already in place to reduce the hazard/risk level? 5. What additional things can we do to reduce the hazard/risk further? 6. Bearing the above in mind, is the level of risk acceptable? For example, a risk assessment for a nursery school work experience placement could be set out as in the table below.

A risk assessment for a nursery school work experience placement

(What could go wrong?)
Hazard level (how bad would it be?) Risk level (how likely is it?) Existing measures Additional measures to be taken Employer initials
Muscle strain/damage from lifting children Medium Possible Manual handling guidance in place Student to declare any history of back/muscle strain and desist from lifting if necessary. Student to be trained in appropriate lifting techniques  
Trips/falls as a result of toys on floor Medium Possible Staff made aware of necessity to keep floor area clear of all toys except those currently in use. Staff aware of need to tread carefully in play areas Student to be made aware of need to tread carefully in play areas  
Fire High Remote Fire procedures in place
Fire exits clearly marked
Student to be informed on arrival of emergency evacuation procedures  
Exposure to infection from children (coughs, colds etc) Low Possible Parents are advised that their children should not attend nursery if they are unwell N/A  
Child protection issue High Remote All nursery staff are CRB checked and subject to rigorous selection One-to-one supervision only to take place if staff concerned have full CRB clearance  

It is important that the risk assessment is carried out jointly by the school representative and the member of the employer’s staff who will be responsible for supervising the student. It is also important that the student and his/her parents are made aware of any significant risks identified by the assessment.

Child protection

A school does not only have responsibilities in relation to standard health and safety issues, but also in relation to the safeguarding of young people from harm, including ensuring that other adults with whom they come into contact behave appropriately and are not a risk to their welfare. Measures which should be taken in relation to work experience include:

  • The work experience coordinator (or equivalent) should have a basic awareness of child protection issues.
  • Employers should be made aware of how to proceed if they encounter a child protection issue.
  • If an adult at a work placement (eg a manager in a small business) is likely to have ‘regular or significant unsupervised access to young people’ then CRB checks should be conducted before the placement commences.

If your school is involved in long-term work placements, then there are additional child protection requirements. These are:

  • Endorsement by the employer of a child protection policy or statement of principles.
  • CRB checking of ‘any person whose normal duties will include regularly caring for, training, looking after or supervising a child in the workplace’

To conclude, I would just make it clear that although there are of course health and safety issues in relation to work experience placements, these should not be seen as a reason for preventing or curtailing activity in this area. The drive towards a more relevant and engaging curriculum is something that can potentially make a huge difference to many students in our schools, especially those who can become disaffected by a traditional academic curriculum. Experience of practical application of skills and experience in the workplace can make the difference for these young people between success and failure in school and in life. Of course we need to plan for the worst, to follow procedures and take precautions. But we should never forget that these processes are not about preventing or restricting activity unnecessarily, but about supporting young people to grow and develop in a safe and secure environment.

Job description: work experience coordinator

The purpose of the job: To ensure that students obtain positive and relevant experiences of the world of work. Specific responsibilities

  1. Building of relationships with employers to enable the work experience programme to run smoothly.
  2. Development and maintenance of a database of employers participating in the work experience programme.
  3. Management of administration, data collection and data entry in relation to work experience.
  4. Conducting individual interviews with students to assess their work experience needs and matching them to appropriate placements.
  5. Planning, allocation, effective coordination and management of work experience placements.
  6. Management of the health and safety/risk assessment process for all work experience placements.
  7. Undertaking employer visits before and during work experience placements.
  8. Communicating with employers in relation to work experience placements.
  9. Attending/minuting work experience meetings.
  10. Administration in relation to work experience placements including correspondence, filing, photocopying, word-processing, etc.

What to look for in a work experience coordinator

A commitment to the ethos of the school Experience of working in an education environment
A knowledge and understanding of careers and work experience issues  
An empathy and rapport with young people  
Ability to communicate effectively with representatives from the local business community  
Excellent verbal and written communication skills  
Strong administrative and clerical skills  
Good ICT skills, including Microsoft Office applications and databases  
Ability to manage own time and workload effectively in a busy environment  
Literate and numerate  

What are your experiences of the risk assessment of such placements? We are also interested to hear how schools are staffing the administration of work experience. Please post your comment below.

Ruth is assistant headteacher (director of school and extended services) at Ribblesdale School in Clitheroe, Lancs. References/links

The Right Start (HSE document)
Information on young people at work
Work Experience: A Guide for Employers