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Taking risks is healthy for children

22nd June 2009

Philip Johnston writes in The Telegraph about how children should be able to take risks in order to lead full and enjoyable lives.

woman&childQ

At the school I attended when I was a child, a plaque hangs on the wall in memory of a terrible tragedy which occurred nearly 80 years ago.

Fifteen people died, including nine boys from the ages of 10 to 14, in a fire demonstration by the fire brigade. Although this had been carried out for many years without mishap, this time a real fire broke out and people lost their lives.

This event came to my mind when I heard about a survey by Teachers TV, which showed that many strange regulations and rules are in place in schools around the UK.

These rules included children being made to put on goggles and safety clothing when they were using Blu-Tack, a five page document instructing teachers on how to use Pritt Stick in the classroom and pupils who were forbidden to eat sweets because they might choke.

The tragic events at my school in 1929 showed that it is definitely necessary to lay down rules to ensure pupils' safety.  The question is how stringent these rules should be and whether they have already become too restrictive.

While I was not given goggles during chemistry lessons, my children were and I would have been upset if they had not been given them.

In my day during geography field trips we scrambled over rocks and jumped into pools that would involve so much safety equipment today that schools would not be able to afford it.

In response to the teachers' survey Judith Hackitt, the chairman of the Health and Safety Executive, said: "Hardly a week goes by without another health and safety myth appearing."

"Health and safety is blamed for a lot of things not going ahead, but they're often about something else – high costs, an event that requires a lot of organising or fear of getting sued. Children cannot be wrapped in cotton wool – risk is part of growing up and our children need to learn how to manage risks in the real world."

These are not myths - they are a response to a society that is deeply frightened of taking risks and keen to look for blame when accidents occur. Schools are so terrified of being blamed that many do not hold sports days in case pupils have accidents.

The pressure on teachers to be careful often comes from parents who insist on overcautious measures to ensure the safety of their children.

Awful accidents do occur, but that should not mean that all dangerous things in life must be stamped out.

"We can teach children to be vigilant and sensible without being frightened of their own shadows. But if parents expect teachers to exercise common sense, then they must play their part by not always looking for a scapegoat when things go awry."

 

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Comments

Adrian Ganderton

Tuesday 23rd June 2009 @ 11:28

I agree that children need to be protected and that wrapping them up in cotton wool is not actually going to help them in the long term. However, the Health & Safety Executive are correct about the myths, they are just that. It is easy to use the angle of society wanting to blame somebody for accidents and injuries because that is all we hear about from the press and other forms of media, including insurance companies. However, the reality is that the number of people claiming compemsation has gone down. In any event we do not have a system in the UK of people making claims for the sake of it, negligence and/or breach of a statutory duty must be proven before any compensation can be claimed. This has always been the case. I am afraid that local authorities and schools in many instances are just jumping on this media bandwagon and using the mythical "compensation culture" as a scapegoat for not engaging in sports days, trips etc.

Mr Hetherington

Wednesday 24th June 2009 @ 13:55

All events need to have a risk assessment carried out. That mush is mandated by the law and is not a myth. For not not steeped in the bureaucracy of form filling, the prospect of completing a risk assessment is certainly a "chore" and is often a major and difficult undertaking. And if it is assessed that there is a risk that can be minimised by the provision of safety equipment, a school or local fete committee or whatever does have to decide whether it is necessary to have the equipment (and thereby making the event unaffordable or impractical) or if the cost and subsequent cancellation can be deemed to be "unreasonable" measures that can be ignored and the residual risk accepted. Given the likelihood of the parents/spouse/family/police seeking someone to blame in the event of something going wrong and causing harm or death, what teacher or volunteer committee member would want to rest their career, home or freedom on the robustness of their assessment of risk? The necessity to consider risk is the base cause of the problem of risk aversion and in the context of a society where "reasonableness", "accident" and "chance" have been reduced to monetary value by no win no fee litigation, who would want to expose themselves to it? People are fearful of being sued or held by employers such as LEAs to be culpable, and that is not a myth. One person's acceptable risk is another person's (usually the grieving relatives) foolhardiness. While there is the remotest chance of a judge agreeing with the complainant, why take the risk?

Wednesday 24th June 2009 @ 16:46

Understanding our perception of risk is key to understanding how we take risks. Learning to negotiate risk is an essential part of what make a child into a nuanced adult. Without this, we remain naive and infantile.
Following the Lyme Bay tragedy, public service managers risk assessed anything that moved. They desperately want to avoid harm to those in their care and, yes, they also want to avoid negligence claims and ruined careers.
Risk assessments are useful. The disastrous storage of Trichloroethylene in an unlabelled drinks container and the explosion caused by a fag butt thrown into an 'empty' petrol storage tank are things of the past because we have learned from mistakes and improved our practice.
But this is not the same thing as risk-taking.
Adolescent risk taking is only different from the adult variety (...that extra glass...?) in that it is essential. If we don't take risks - whether in life or in love - we don't become adults. Without risk, the world is a grey, grey place.
Adventure (as this used to called) is a vital part of growing-up. Those working in education and childcare need to remember that we show our caring professionalism not just by filling in forms but also by ensuring that a sense of danger is there in chidlren's activities without them ever being put at risk!


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