What is a practical activity?
Today, nearly every subject has some form of practical dimension, no matter which Key Stage is being taught. Teachers’ vigilance means that practical activities in schools are usually safe and accidents are thankfully rare. Nevertheless, teachers concerned about situations with which they are asked to cope when undertaking practical activities with pupils regularly approach the NEU.
In applying this guidance, it should be recognised that there is no easy single definition of what constitutes a practical activity. In the NEU’s view, what matters is the nature of the activity and the circumstances in which it is being undertaken. Although some activities are inherently more hazardous than others, all practical activities can become hazardous in some circumstances due to factors such as pupil misbehaviour, poorly designed work areas, inexperience of teachers, ability of pupils, etc.
We all recognise secondary school subjects such as design and technology, art and science as “practical subjects”. Other subjects regularly involving practical activities include ICT, drama, music and physical education lessons. Often, however, secondary school lessons in subjects such as languages and geography can include practical activities where safety considerations are as important as in those other subjects.
Practical activities also occur, however, throughout the primary curriculum involving a wide range of equipment from scissors to computers. Safety considerations are therefore also important in the primary sector in order to ensure the safety of pupils, particularly since primary teachers may be less familiar with some activities than secondary teachers who are subject specialists.
What the law says
The Health & Safety at Work etc Act 1974 requires employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of employees and other persons on their premises.
In schools and colleges this means that the employer - the local authority, governing body, academy trust, college corporation etc. - is responsible for taking steps to ensure the health and safety both of teachers and of pupils. These steps should be identified by means of risk assessments.
The legal provisions on risk assessment set out in the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 state that hazards to health and safety facing staff and pupils must be identified, the risks posed by these hazards evaluated, and the measures needed to remove or reduce those risks identified and put in place.
Risk assessments must be properly recorded, brought to the attention of staff and made available to them on request. Risk assessments for practical activities are needed because of the likelihood that these activities will involve a potential risk to health and safety that is greater than usual.
The principles applying Safety in practical lessons to risk assessments for practical activities will be similar to those that apply, for example, when assessing risks for outdoor activities on trips out of school. Whatever the nature of the practical lesson, it is generally accepted that, as a minimum, some form of risk assessment should appear on the scheme of work and/or lesson notes.
The more complex the risks, the more detailed the risk assessment will need to be. In many cases, however, all that is necessary is a brief note outlining the principal risks and the control measures needed to remove/reduce those risks. This would reflect the duty placed on all employees under the Health and Safety at Work Act etc. 1974 to take reasonable care for their own health and safety and the health and safety of other persons who may be affected by their actions or omissions.
Model risk assessments
For some activities, there are “model” or “generic” risk assessments available for work patterns, processes and equipment that are common to all schools. This avoids unnecessary duplication of work and also provides a quality standard and ensures consistency between schools. These could prove useful for areas such as design and technology rooms, gymnasia and science laboratories and for activities where teachers are involved in carrying equipment and manual handling.
All of these risk assessments should, however, not be simply adopted by the school without considering how they will be applied in practice and how they may need to be adapted or amended according to the school’s circumstances. In addition, schools must have a policy in place which sets out the protocols for managing any substances used in practical lessons; for instance, radioactive materials in science lessons.
Risk assessments must be kept under regular review to determine their suitability. For example, a further risk assessment should be carried out if a room layout is changed, new equipment is introduced or if a new pupil joins the class.
Employers are obliged by legislation to appoint one or more ‘competent persons’ to carry out the measures needed to comply with the law. This is a very important matter in determining the extent to which teachers, in particular heads and deputies, should be involved in carrying out risk assessments on behalf of the employer.
Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance on ‘managing for health and safety’ states that risk assessments should be carried out by someone with a knowledge of the process, activity or other function which is being assessed. If an external person, such as a consultant, undertakes the risk assessment, staff members (managers and workers) should still be involved.
For an individual to be deemed to be ‘competent’ under the Regulations, he or she must have ‘sufficient training and experience or knowledge and other qualities’ to be able to undertake the task. This does not mean that a risk assessment can be carried out only by qualified health and safety specialists. It does mean, however, that anyone who is asked to carry out a risk assessment, or who agrees to do so, is entitled to be given proper support.
It is also important to note that employees can be asked to contribute their experiences and feedback to the risk assessment without being the person tasked with completing the assessment. The HSE guidance states that ‘workers and their safety representatives are a valuable source of information’.
Risk assessments and contractual responsibilities
The professional duties of a head teacher include responsibility for managing health and safety in schools and colleges. This includes a duty to co-operate with the governing body and employer so far as is necessary to ensure compliance with health and safety requirements.
As a result of Safety in practical lessons this, head teachers may be required by their employers or governing bodies to manage the process of risk assessment in their school. This does not necessarily require personal involvement in the completion of risk assessments but head teachers need to be sure that those to whom they delegate the task are competent.
Deputy and assistant head teachers may be required to undertake any of the professional duties of head teachers which are reasonably delegated to them. They may, therefore, also be required to manage the process of risk assessment. Heads of department or subject may, as a result of their managerial roles, be required to do so for their areas of responsibility. This does not necessarily mean, however, they must carry the risk assessments out themselves.
Teachers of practical subjects, including science, technology, design, art and PE, will need to be involved in risk assessments for areas within their jurisdiction. However, school/college leaders must be sure that subject specialists are fully competent both in the risk assessment process and in the specialist subject. Even where a teacher has the specialist knowledge and is competent to undertake risk assessments on behalf of the employer, the resulting risk assessments still ‘belong’ to the employer, who will be held liable if they are inadequate.
CLEAPSS, of which more than 28,000 schools and colleges across England, Wales and Northern Ireland are members, provides advice and guidance on all aspects of practical work, including approaches to risk assessment. Other class teachers, ie those who do not teach the subjects listed above, and do not have any management responsibility, have no obligation under their conditions of service to undertake formal risk assessments (if employed under STPCD conditions) and should not be directed to do so, but they may of course be willing to contribute their expertise on a voluntary basis, for example in respect of individual pupil risk assessments.
Non-teaching staff may be required to undertake risk assessments, on behalf of their employer, if this is provided for under their contract of employment and job description. But, as with other employees, the resulting risk assessments still ‘belong’ to the employer, who will be held liable for any inadequacies.
Checklist which considers the issues of greatest relevance in deciding whether practical activities are safe:
• the nature of the activity;
• supervision issues; and
• the suitability of the teaching area.
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