Letting children take well considered risks helps to prepare them for danger in the world, argues former head Bob Jelley.

Twelve years of igniting a 5 November bonfire and firework display seem to prove that risk taking is a personal strength or weakness, depending on your own perspective. The wary would castigate me, or profess admiration from afar, whilst risk-takers might understand this annual expedition into the dark.

There was always the moment, at about 8pm on 5 November, when I would watch great leaping flames lurch as if to caress the Year 5 classrooms or the hawthorn hedges alongside the A444 and I would begin to compose a contingency letter…

‘Dear Chair of Governors,
Following the incineration of the school during last night’s  bonfire party I hereby offer my resignation as headteacher.’

At some point, the pile of broken wooden palettes would collapse inwards and I would sigh with profound relief. The flames would still be as high but from a lower base. There would still be embers, tumbling airborne, or rolling downwind but surely they wouldn’t reach the OAP bungalows?

The bonfire having matured, it was time to don the lumberjack helmet, recommended on my firework course; check the boot laces and fire resistant gloves and assemble my assistants at the firework lighting point.

We had water ready and sound tubes and frameworks. The whole of the local community (it seemed) was assembled behind the ropes and stakes, placed at the edge of the playground a measured distance away. Traditional ‘ooohs’ and soothing ‘aaahs’ followed each fiery release. There were only one or two occasions when a firework fell and discharged horizontally and just once when a rocket shrieked towards the crowd…

Risk assessment

Each year the demands of the insurance industry grew and associated officers in the LEA fidgeted audibly as I re-established their blessing for the occasion. Of course paperwork increased and no one will be surprised to hear that a comprehensive risk assessment took place.

Was it all worth it? Well, it won the support of the school community and attracted hundreds each year. Originally, the objective was that it should be just self-supporting financially. It would provide a relatively safe, organised setting for a traditional evening, beloved by the host community in a multicultural school. After a few years we were spending more on firework displays, yet we were making several hundreds of pounds in profit. At the heart of the event was a simple objective – to provide a safe experience of a tradition. We were taking risks but we were also taking care.

Somewhere and by some one, education was described as ‘the passing of the soul of a culture from one generation to the next’. That’s just what we were doing with our bonfire nights.

As anxious as those 5 November experiences were, they don’t approach a memorable canal walk for sheer terror inducement.

There were eight or so Year 6 pupils in my group and we were happily walking the towpath beside the Oxford Canal. There was a steep, wooded embankment, the day was warm and the happy band wandered on. We came upon a stretch where the rising bank was without vegetation and the reason was evident – a rope swing, knotted at its lower end and placed by some Tarzan on a high bough. There was an immediate clamouring ‘Can we have a go, sir?’

I mentally trawled through all of the courses and advice and returned to the question ‘Would I do it with my own children?’ The answer to that was ‘Yes’, so I clambered up to the rope and hung my own considerable weight to test for strength. I remembered my own childhood and ropes across the Sherbourne. I did some calculations and reckoned that descent into the water was very unlikely. I huffed and puffed a bit internally and said, ‘Yes but hang on tight and don’t swing out too much.’ The first lad fought his way through the throng, he pulled back, swung out and then, whilst in mid air, he let go and dropped heavily to the ground, my spirits and hopes for a long headship fell with him. He stayed still and didn’t get up. I went to him. Kevin groaned, looked up and the pieces of several broken teeth showed in his mouth. His teeth were smashed. He was dizzy but increasingly alert. I knew his family well but that meant nothing – hours at the dentist lay ahead of Kevin.

‘Don’t speak,’ I told him ‘one of your teeth might be broken,’ I added. ‘Sir, no sir, that’s my Polo mint’, he said. If I had been religious I would have immediately secured and sacrificed several nearby beasts in a joyous thanksgiving. As it was I think that I told off the tottering Kevin for letting go of the rope and then the towpath walk re-commenced. ‘No!’ I thundered at any enquiries, ‘you’re not having a go on the swing and I don’t care if it’s not fair.’

Taking those children on a walk was taking care of them. But what about letting them onto a swing? I continue to think that we prepare children for danger in the world by letting them experience risk to a reasonable degree. In the worse scenario I hope that the magistrate would remember the joy that he got out of watching The Crimson Pirate.

We take care by taking risks.