Safety is an important part of any school sports programme. Risk from unstable goalposts might seem remote, but can unfortunately present more problems than you might think, as Chris Green reports

We often don’t fully appreciate the need for safety measures until something goes tragically wrong.
In 1991 Brenda Smith’s 11-year-old son, Jonathan, was killed when a 200lb goalpost fell on top of him, rupturing his heart. Brenda, from Essex, was shocked to discover that a boy in the Isle of Wight had died and that a seven-year-old boy in Morecambe had died four years previously in 1986, both in goalpost-related incidents. Meanwhile a girl in Scotland had sustained a broken pelvis and suffered lifelong injuries when a goal fell on her.

‘We were led to believe that Jonathan’s death was a one-off incident, but it wasn’t,’ said Brenda. Her response was to set up what has often seemed like a one-woman campaign to improve goalpost safety regimes. In the early days, in particular, she claims it was difficult to attract support or even interest among football’s governing bodies. ‘They weren’t really interested,’ she muses.

But the deaths continued. A further six boys across England were killed in goalpost-related accidents in the eight years following Jonathan’s death.

Despite the support of Prince William, the Football Association’s president, for Brenda’s campaign, football did not make a concerted effort to rid the recreational game of outdated and dangerous goalposts until 2005, when the Football Association launched its goalpost safety awareness campaign.

It came in response to some sobering statistics. Brenda showed me research findings which listed some 848 goalpost-related injuries, mainly minor injuries to children. The most alarming aspect of these figures is that they were compiled over just two years, between 2000 and 2002.

The FA’s own survey came to some similarly shocking conclusions: of all the goals it tested, 41% of mini-soccer goals, 50% of five-a-side goals and 22% of junior goals failed stability tests.

These were almost all portable goals which relied for stability on the system for holding them down, either using anchors or weights. The FA found that anchor weights were rarely being used properly or to the recommended loading.

Many schools and clubs did not realise that ground conditions could affect the stability of goals, so it was important to liaise with manufacturers on the appropriate ground fixings for various weather conditions. Half the survey respondents were unaware of the FA campaign.

And this is not just a British problem. There were five deaths and 400 goalpost injuries in Portugal in 2002. In 2008, there have been three deaths in Russia and another one in Croatia.

‘There will be more deaths and injuries and more parents who will go through the pain that we have been through because there are still unsafe goal out there,’ is Brenda Smith’s conclusion.

Football is trying to improve its safety rate. Since August 2005 grants have been available from the Football Foundation’s Goalpost Safety Scheme, with a total of £1,769,873 distributed to 2,842 schools and community clubs. The grants were initially aimed at replacing existing goalposts, but more recently have been available for new posts. Last year, the third year of the FA campaign, 250,000 leaflets were sent to clubs, schools, youth groups, referees, coaches and leisure facilities.

The effort in the national game is being matched by good practice in schools. Teachers routinely have to complete risk assessment forms and comply with safety regimes before, after and during a school sports session.

This means more than a rudimentary walk around the pitch to check they are free of dog mess, glass and syringes, but spotting just about every foreseeable element of danger that could harm a pupil participating in school sports. Risk assessments have to cover equipment, pitches, clothing – even transport, if a team is being taken to play an away fixture.

At Worcester Royal Grammar School, head of PE Tim Curtis insists on a rigorous sports safety regime, with standard risk assessment forms completed for each sports session and location used by the school.

‘We have thoroughly thought out safety regimes. These range from using hinged rugby posts which clip together and are easier to install through to pupils only playing against pupils of the same age and size so there is less risk of physical injury,’ says Curtis.

Curtis, a former England and Worcestershire cricketer, insists he mainly sees best practice at the schools he visits and a real will among teachers to make the sporting environment as safe and secure as possible.

‘It is the difference between being seen to do the right things and actually doing the right things,’ explains Kay Hodgetts, curriculum leader of personal learning and physical exercise at Wolverley CE Secondary School near Kidderminster in North Worcestershire.

Wolverley’s sports equipment including trampolines and goalposts (unusually the school also has a dry ski slope) is regularly checked and tested by an external company. Hodgetts feels secure that every possible step is taken to prevent injury – even on small things like obstacles or pupils’ bags overspilling on to the playing area in a sports hall, which could cause injury if a child tripped.

But she admits she has seen examples at fellow schools where the safety regimes are not so strict. ‘If we felt it was bad enough we wouldn’t play a fixture, it is as simple as that.’ However Wolverley, like many schools which share community football pitches, does not have its goalposts put up and taken down for each session. ‘It would be impossible and take forever for each session or school day,’ says Hodgetts. ‘We check them before each game.’

A major concern is that, while safety and scrutiny are necessary safeguards, too great a fear of being sued by litigious parents or guardians could dissuade schools from providing coaching sessions. Why take the risk of being sued?

For a country supposedly in the grip of an obesity crisis, that is seriously bad news. Fewer coaching sessions equals fewer healthy children – and all the statistics point to the fact that too many of the nation’s youth are not getting enough exercise. Paul Cooper of the Give Us Back Our Game campaign for children’s football is concerned about the lack of organised sports at many primary schools.

‘It isn’t just that they don’t provide sports coaching, but that some are so scared of legal action being taken against them they actually try to prevent children from running and jumping around in playgrounds, which is disastrous.’

Cooper wonders how many grassroots coaches are put off organising recreational sport, with liability insurance costing up to £250 for small junior clubs. ‘Some people might say that is right, that you have to make it as safe as possible, which is true. But then you have more children playing unorganised sport and the risks are far greater than in a controlled environment. Where does an organised game with coaches and proper goalposts that meet the correct standards start and a kickabout end?’ he asks.

Schools with private facilities are in control of their own safety measures, but posts in public parks where children might congregate at all hours can weaken and become dangerous. If posts are left available for children to use for their own games, the risk of a post falling is higher, particularly on municipal pitches.

Brenda Smith believes the exact authority or person responsible for equipment needs to be identified. ‘Is it the referee, schoolteachers, coaches or groundsmen? I would like to see this type of negligence become a serious criminal offence.’

Sadly, much of these factors are outside the remit of school sports teachers who, even though they do their best, cannot guarantee that every goalpost or any other piece of equipment hasn’t been tampered with. So goalpost safety is a balance, like all things in school sport.

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