Recognising and minimising risk in the school environment is a vital part of a headteacher’s management role, says former head Roger Smith.

Risk management is not new, although it might seem so given the number of reminders that LEAs send in to schools about checking step ladders, fitting slow closures to doors, locking the scissors away etc. Every headteacher wants to make their school as safe as possible but in any busy school hazards exist and accidents happen. What we need to do is minimise this possibility.

Risk assessment and risk management involves considering dangers faced by pupils, staff and visitors. This includes premises issues such as electrical faults, slips, trips and falls, classroom safety, contractor safety; fire checks including tests and drill logs, fire hazards and precautions and emergency evacuation; first aid provision, issues connected to computers and work stations; specific areas such as kitchens, boiler rooms, sports halls and toilets; external areas involving traffic routes, car parks and playgrounds; hazardous substances and waste – and many more!

As part of the management of their school, headteachers need to:

  • identify and assess risks
  • determine what kind of action needs to be taken
  • take the appropriate action
  • monitor the results
  • evaluate the successes and provide feedback.

Minimising risk

Once you have identified a hazard you have to manage the risk. This does not mean that you have to personally remove the puddle of water from the corridor floor caused by the leaking roof – but someone has to do it. This is where you need a good caretaker or site manager, competent cleaners who are able to use their own initiative and, of course, an efficient back up team of LEA officers and contractors who will fix the problem within days rather than weeks.

Of course, you may work in a school where there are more hazards than an occasional pool of water on the floor. If this is the case you will have to assess the potential frequency and severity of each risk and consider: removal of the risk, eg by replacing equipment; limiting the impact of the risk, eg by contingency planning; transferring the risk, eg by using insurance and accepting the risk, eg where the impact is minimal and the probability low.

Checks and surveys

Obviously, risks that are identified as high frequency or serious have to be given priority and once these have been determined you will have to implement appropriate action to minimise them. Identifying risks is often simply about regular checks and surveys. Don’t be afraid to call in the experts and demand health and safety checks by health and safety officers and safety checks on the building by a qualified building surveyor.

 It is also important to ensure that appropriate fire checks are carried out and that there is a regular survey of the premises by the caretaker with a written system of reporting problems. This is more than just a back-covering exercise – it’s about making sure that everyone is safe, that everything is checked and double checked, that there are written policies telling everyone how to do this and written records are kept of faults and problems, no matter how small.

Thorough paperwork in the form of detailed records is vital in risk management. Internal records should be kept meticulously and there are various resources available from resources/index.html and to help with this. These include leaflets and pro-formas for educational visits, incident and accident reporting and a toolkit which includes information and advice on such things as how to deal with violence or threatening behaviour towards staff.

Getting advice and support

Risk assessment and risk management are areas that can cause all headteachers real problems. This is because hazard management is outside the experience and expertise of most of us. We have to rely on someone else offering us clear, accurate and practical advice in many of the grey areas of risk management – especially when it comes to what specific records need to be kept and what periodic checks need to be carried out.

Your LEA will also have useful leaflets offering good advice on stress management, how to lift objects safely and the risks involved in working on your own after school etc. All staff should be encouraged to read them carefully. You cannot manage this vast area on your own without support from experts and accurate and appropriate help from your LEA.

The Health and Safety Executive publish an excellent eight-page guide on risk management called Five Steps to Risk Assessment. It highlights the advisability of keeping everything as simple as possible.  But, it also emphasises the fact that the law does not expect us to eliminate all risk – although as headteachers we are required to protect people as far as it is ‘reasonably practicable’. For most of us it will mean developing and managing effective measures to ensure that our most valuable assets – children and staff – are protected and kept as safe as possible.