Responsibility for health and safety in independent schools

The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 places overall responsibility for health and safety with the employer.  In an independent school this will be the proprietor or governing body.

All employers have a duty to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable:

  • the health, safety and welfare of teachers and other staff;
  • the health and safety of students both on the school site and on off-site visits; and
  • the health and safety of volunteers involved in any school activity.

Managing health and safety in independent schools on a day to day basis involves the delegation of management responsibilities to specific employees within the school.  Having a management responsibility for health and safety matters does not mean that the employer’s legal obligations and duties have also been transferred to this member of staff.  Ultimate legal responsibility remains with the employer. 

In order to discharge its health and safety responsibilities, an employer must:

  • have a health and safety policy and arrangements to implement it; and
  • assess the risks of all activities, introduce measures to manage all those risks and tell their employees about the measures (in compliance with the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999).

These duties and responsibilities for health and safety within the school are statutory obligations and cannot be waived or ignored.

The health and safety policy document

The fundamental document underpinning employers’ health and safety management systems is the employer’s health and safety policy statement, and this is a requirement of the 1974 Act.

The statement should begin with the employer’s commitment to meeting its health and safety responsibilities, and then should set out details of:

  • the organisational and management structure for health and safety, including the responsibilities of particular managers and other employees for health and safety matters;
  • the consultative structure for health and safety, setting out the ways in which the employer will consult employees and safety reps;
  • the procedures to be followed and the standards to be reached in order to ensure that the employer’s responsibilities for health and safety are met;
  • the arrangements for monitoring and review; and
  • any supplementary statements to be implemented and followed in particular parts of the employer’s organisation.

This policy document should be supplemented by the school’s own procedures covering additional matters such as

Incident/injury reporting

Asbestos management

Bullying/harassment/Dignity at Work

Construction work/contractors on school site

COSHH assessments

Electrical safety

Emergency procedures

Fire safety

First aid

High/low temperatures

Home visits

ICT equipment use

Hygiene control

Infectious diseases, including COVID-19

Lifting/handling

Medicines

Minibuses/transport safety

New and expectant mothers

Risk assessment

Safety on educational visits

Safety in practical subjects

Smoking

Stress – Prevention of work-related stress

This list is not exhaustive and should be reviewed regularly, with policies being updated as and when necessary.  The NEU provides comprehensive guidance on all these matters which can be found at www.neu.org.uk.

The NEU has a model health and safety policy and an accompanying checklist which can be used to ascertain the acceptability of an employer policy, available at www.neu.org.uk. .

The role of the health and safety representative

Trade unions have the legal right to appoint health and safety representatives.  This right derives from a central plank of health and safety legislation, the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977.  These regulations, with accompanying codes of practice and guidance notes, are collectively known as the ‘Brown Book’

Functions of safety representatives

NEU safety representatives enjoy a range of powers and rights which enable them to help their colleagues deal with any health and safety problems at their place of work. Safety representatives can make a real difference to their colleagues’ lives.

NEU appointed safety representatives have the legal right to undertake various functions, as and when you and your colleagues feel it is necessary, to help raise health and safety standards including:

  • carrying out inspections of the workplace;
  • investigating complaints by any employee you represent;
  • making representations to your employer; and
  • investigating potential hazards and examine the causes of accidents at the workplace.

These rights are enshrined in Regulations 4 and 5 of the Brown Book.

Safety representatives are legally entitled to paid time off during working time to undertake their functions.  They also have a legal entitlement, although not an obligation, to paid time off to attend training.  The NEU’s health and safety representatives’ training course is held at a national level, or online, and many regions also offer this training locally. Details of any upcoming courses will be listed here.

Other rights of safety representatives include:

  • the right to represent employees in consultations at the workplace with HSE inspectors and receive information from them;
  • the right to be informed and consulted by the employer on health and safety matters;
  • the right to carry out safety inspections on a routine basis or where there has been an accident or dangerous occurrence; and
  • the right to call for the convening of a safety committee to oversee health and safety standards in the workplace.

Last but not least, safety representatives do not carry any additional legal responsibilities beyond those of any other employee.

Minimum standards for independent school premises

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 apply to workplaces of all kinds, including independent schools.  They set out detailed requirements for standards at the workplace in terms of heating, lighting, number of staff toilets, welfare facilities etc.

There are specific regulations that apply to academies, independent schools and sixth form colleges, known as the Education (Independent School Standards) (England) Regulations 2012.  Advice to help schools and schools understand their obligations in relation to these regulations is contained in the DfE document ‘Standards for School Premises’.  These regulations are enforced by the Department for Education. 

Key points of the Education (Independent School Standards) (England) Regulations 2012

  • Suitable toilet and washing facilities to be provided for the sole use of pupils.
  • Separate toilet facilities to be provided for boys and girls (except where the toilet is in a room that can be secured from the inside and that is intended for use by 1 student at a time.
  • Toilet and washing facilities for staff should be separate from those provided for students except where they are designed for use by those who are disabled.
  • Suitable accommodation must be provided to cater for the medical and therapy needs of pupils.  It must include a washing facility and be near to a toilet facility.  It can be used for other purposes, apart from teaching, provided it is always available for medical use when needed.
  • Lighting in each room or other internal space must be suitable, having regard to the nature of the activities that take place and external lighting must be provided to ensure that people can safety enter and leave the premises.
  • Suitable drinking water facilities must be provided and they will only be suitable if they are readily accessible at all times when the premises are in use and are in a separate area from the toilet facilit

COVID-19

2020 and 2021 have been dominated by the Coronavirus pandemic.  Schools – as the Government has admitted – have been ‘vectors for transmission’ because of the limited opportunities for social distancing; the large numbers of unvaccinated young people in often poorly-ventilated classrooms; and the fact that any students infected with COVID-19 whilst at school return home to spread the virus within the local community.  This is as true of independent schools as of schools in the state sector.

The NEU has prepared a vast array of guidance on all aspects of COVID-19 and safety in schools.  The simplest place to start is the Coronavirus guidance and FAQs which provide concise answers to questions on COVID-19 and safety in schools, but include links to more detailed advice where applicable.

Information for boarding schools in the context of COVID-19 can be found on the website of the Boarding Schools’ Association.

Working time

Educators in independent schools work long hours and frequently face excessive workloads.  In an NEU survey conducted in November 2019, more than half (60%) of teachers said their workload had increased since last year. Two-thirds (67%) said that they worked two or more evenings per week during term time, and a third (34%) reported working every weekend. 

Education staff in independent schools, especially but not only in boarding schools, often find themselves required to work very long hours with scant regard paid to proper breaks.  After a full day in the classroom, independent school staff will usually have to engage in a demanding programme of extra-curricular activities, meaning marking work and preparing lessons for the next day is often necessarily carried out well into the evening.

The 2019 NEU survey of independent school members found that many teachers did not get a proper lunch break to recuperate. Only a third of respondents (33%) received the NEU recommended minimum of a 40-minute lunch break. Shockingly, a quarter (26%) did not receive the statutory minimum of an uninterrupted daily break of 20 minutes.  Because of the type of contract most independent school staff work under, they must look to the relevant legislation to enforce their breaks and rest periods.  For further information and guidance on working time in independent schools, see the NEU guidance.

Workload and directed time

A third of members say their workload is never manageable, a recent National Education Union survey has found, and more than a quarter are working between six and 10 hours during evenings and weekends each week.   Tackling workload requires a cultural change throughout the system – both in the independent and state sectors.  But immediate improvement can be secured at school level by members working collaboratively. So the NEU has put together a set of tools and advice that members can use to improve work-life balance, including a toolkit on identifying problems and securing change.

The NEU believes that, not only is it good practice for staff and the union to be involved in the general discussion of the allocation of work, but that it makes for a better run school. We have all heard the justifications that the inspectorate demands it, the parents expect it, and our competitors are doing it. This is all well and good but there needs to be a professional discussion with those delivering the work to ensure that it is desirable, productive, and necessary. If so, then workload must be prioritised. If new things are added, others need to be taken away. We encourage all our reps and members in the independent sector to request involvement in the discussion about the allocation of work and duties, to ensure that it is reasonable, proportionate, and fair to all. Seek to establish this as common practice.

All schools should have a calendar of the activities which make up teachers’ working time. The NEU believes that it should be consulted on with staff via trade unions in all workplaces. Individual teachers should also have a personal record or working time calendar that reflects the school’s calendar and shows their individual commitments. These ensure that enough time is allocated to them to fulfil each of the requirements of their role, leaving a contingency cushion for the year and avoiding an excessive and unmanageable workload. NEU reps/members should ask their head or leadership team for meaningful collective staff consultation on workload, the working time calendar, or other record of hours. It is important to have collective staff oversight of timetabling. Individual teachers can raise concerns about their workload at any point during the academic year.

The allocation of duties, tasks, and roles between full and part-time staff should be on a pro-rata basis. It is important to ensure that the position of part-time teachers – who are predominantly women and contain large numbers of teachers with protected characteristics – is fairly managed.

How to win on directed time in your workplace

  1. Organise a meeting of members to discuss workload and/or a working time calendar – there should be an annual discussion about workload that sets out the details of teaching staff working time in the forthcoming academic year.  Bear in mind that there might be two parts to the conversation: first, when the timetabling is done in the summer; and second, when the implications are fully known in the autumn.
  2. If this is something that doesn’t usually happen at your school, use the members’ meeting to agree that the rep/s will speak to the head/ SLT about workload/or working time calendar overview and collective staff input into the general discussion.
  3. Meet with the head/SLT to discuss workload/a working time calendar and any areas of concern for staff and the union. Seek to establish that workload will be reasonable, proportionate, and fair.
  4. Meet again with members to discuss your head/SLT’s response and decide your next steps.
  5. If you have concerns about your hours of work, use the Excel pro forma to calculate the hours of you and your colleagues to compare with the state sector. Better still, contact your NEU counterparts in comparable schools to make comparisons.
  6. If you need any further support, contact your district secretary or regional office.

For general information and advice on tackling workload, see the NEU guidance

Stress

Workload and working time are major – but by no means the only – causes of workplace stress amongst education staff in independent schools.  Other causes include inspections, pupil behaviour, curriculum changes, lack of professional autonomy and workplace bullying.

Employers must carry out risk assessments in relation to workplace hazards, including stress.  The Health and Safety Executive sets out a simple five steps approach to assessing risk
 

  1. Identify hazards, i.e. anything that may cause harm
  2. Decide who may be harmed, and how.
  3. Assess the risks and take action.
  4. Make a record of the findings.
  5. Review the risk assessment.

This NEU guidance will assist employers/management in undertaking a stress risk assessment.

You could also talk to your health and safety rep who may wish to conduct an NEU stress survey to obtain a better picture of the stress levels at your workplace.  A form to obtain a link to the anonymous survey of your members, as well as further information about the survey, can be downloaded from the NEU Health and Safety Reps’ page at https://neu.org.uk/health-and-safety-reps.

See also the NEU briefing Tackling Stress.

Accidents at work

Slips and trips are the most common cause of injury at work and such incidents can cause major injuries. Slips and trips can occur for a number of reasons, including uneven surfaces, obstructions and spillages. The legal requirements for employers to undertake risk assessments includes assessing and controlling the risk of slips, trips and falls on their premises.

Safety precautions instigated by employers to reduce the risk of such incidents are likely to include ensuring floors are routinely cleaned, spillages are identified, reported and cleaned efficiently, traffic routes are not obstructed by items, hazards such as broken floor surfaces are identified and rectified promptly and adequate lighting is provided throughout the school.

If you notice any obvious hazards please report them, even if they seem minor, as these could still lead to serious accidents. If you have any concerns about hazards in your workplace which have not been adequately addressed, you can discuss these with your school safety rep, branch/district health and safety adviser or the NEU Adviceline.

All schools should have clear procedures for dealing with accidents and injuries. This includes maintaining an accident/incident reporting system in which details of all accidents/incidents and injuries should be recorded, even if they appear minor at the time. The employer should make all new teachers aware of the reporting procedures should an accident/incident occur. Please ask if you are not given this information. As part of their legal duties, employers should investigate the causes of all accidents/incidents and injuries and take actions to avoid the incident recurring.

Employers are also required to report certain accidents/incidents and injuries to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). This includes certain ‘specified injuries’ and those which result in an employee being absent from work for more than seven days.

When you join a school please familiarise yourself with the location of the accident book and the procedure for recording an incident. If an accident or injury does occur, it is important that it is recorded even if it seems trivial at the time, as there may be longer term implications. Details that should be recorded include: the date and time of the accident or injury; the name of the person and the nature of the injury; the place where the incident took place and a brief description of the circumstances, including the nature of the activity being undertaken at the time of the accident. More information is available in the Accidents and Injuries NEU health and safety briefing, available at www.neu.org.uk.

First aid

Being a first aider is a voluntary matter unless it is in an employee’s contract of employment.  Teachers’ contracts of employment do not include any requirement to give first aid, in the same way as they do not include any requirement to administer medicines to students routinely.

Any member of staff may volunteer for first-aid duties.  The NEU advises that teachers should consider carefully before agreeing to become the only trained first aider since there can be practical difficulties, such as not being able to leave their class easily.

Of course, if a student suffers an injury, you will want to make them as comfortable as possible, and then if you are not a trained first aider, you should obtain the necessary medical assistance as soon as possible. If you are a trained first aider, once initial first aid has been provided, you should then proceed to obtain further medical assistance as necessary.  

There is no absolute legal requirement for school employers to provide a trained first aider in the workplace (apart from in early years settings). However, NEU policy is that all schools should have a minimum of one first aider and that a first aider should be present on school visits. More information on first aid is available in the NEU health and safety briefing First Aid, available at www.neu.org.uk

Administration of medicines

Unless it is in your contract of employment, there is no legal or contractual duty on teachers in independent schools to administer medicine to students.   Teachers have a general legal duty of care in the case of accident or emergency to act as any reasonably prudent parent would.

Support staff may, as part of their contract, have specific duties to administer medication. However, if they do not have a contractual requirement to administer medicines, then they cannot be made to do so.

Any decision to administer medicines or medical procedures must be your individual choice, and the NEU strongly advises that teachers should only agree to do so if they are provided with appropriate information and training by their employer. Any teachers who do volunteer to administer medicines should be aware that they are taking on a legal responsibility to do so correctly. More information is available in the NEU health and safety briefing Administration of Medicines, available at www.neu.org.uk.

Asbestos

Many independent school buildings were constructed at a time when asbestos was used freely in construction.  When asbestos containing materials are disturbed, fibres are released and these can cause a number of illnesses, including mesothelioma, a cancer of the lung and stomach lining. On average, 19 teachers per year die from mesothelioma.

Asbestos was used widely in the construction of schools, particularly during the 1940s-1970s and can be present in a variety of areas within a school. Asbestos containing materials can be commonly found in sprayed coatings on walls and ceilings, in floor and ceiling tiles and in insulating boards behind walls and in air cabinet heaters. Asbestos is more commonly disturbed in schools than in other workplaces because of the fact that the majority of their occupants are young people who can engage in normal but boisterous behaviour. However, even day-to-day activities, such as putting pins into walls can release asbestos fibres.

School employers have duties under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 to manage the asbestos in their premises safely. This includes carrying out an asbestos survey to find out where asbestos is located, preparing and maintaining an up-to-date asbestos management plan and informing staff, visitors and the emergency services where asbestos is located in the premises.

It is important that all new teachers and members of staff are made aware if their school contains asbestos, and where it is located within the school so that they can avoid disturbing it. If you aren’t told whether your school contains asbestos and if so, where it is located, please ask. It is particularly important for you to know if your classroom and the areas around them contain asbestos. For instance, if walls and ceilings contain asbestos, you should not stick pins or attach work to these. If you are have any concerns about asbestos in your school you can speak to your safety representative, health and safety adviser or contact the NEU Adviceline.

The NEU has lots of guidance on asbestos available from the health and safety section of the NEU website at www.neu.org.uk

School trips

Independent schools pride themselves in their culture and tradition of taking pupils on off-site trips and visits.   Whether or not you are required to participate in school visits will be set out in your contract of employment.  The NEU advises that newly qualified teachers should not be expected to lead school trips during their first year of teaching.

Teachers have a legal duty of care to students on school trips. In practice this means you should ensure supervision of students throughout the journey or visit according to professional standards and common sense and take reasonable steps to avoid exposing students to foreseeable dangers. See detailed NEU health and safety briefing on Educational Visits, available at www.neu.org.uk.

The school employer should have guidelines for staff to assist them in organising school visits. Employers must also conduct a risk assessment prior to school visits taking place. The risk assessment should identify hazards to health and safety, evaluate the risk of harm from these hazards and take appropriate action to protect employees and students. The risk assessment should also consider issues such as the steps to be taken in an emergency, the age of students, transport requirements and safety and any special educational or medical needs of students. All members of staff attending the visit should be provided with a copy of the risk assessment.

Should something unfortunately go wrong on a school trip, employers have ‘vicarious liability’ which means that employers generally take responsibility if their employees do not properly fulfil their safety obligations at work.

Minibus safety

School minibuses are used frequently in the independent sector and can be a very useful resource, providing students with access to out of school activities such as sports fixtures. However, teachers and support staff cannot be required to drive a school minibus, unless this is a requirement of their contract of employment.  You should only agree to drive a minibus if you have been provided with proper training by your employer. In addition to the driver, another member of staff should be present in the minibus to supervise students. A member of staff who drives a school minibus is personally responsible for its roadworthiness, and employers must ensure that they have a comprehensive insurance policy which would prevent staff members being liable for any damages caused when driving the minibus.

Drivers of minibuses must wear a seat belt, and there are specific regulations about the use of seat belts and child restraints for students which vary depending on the age of the child and where they are seated in the minibus. Details of these requirements and more information about school minibuses is available in the NEU health and safety briefing Minibus Safety.  Employers should provide all drivers of school minibuses with procedures to follow should an emergency occur when the minibus is in use.

Using your own vehicle for school purposes

The NEU does not recommend that members use their personal vehicles on school business.  The reason for this is that it introduces an element of personal liability, both in terms of upkeep, and driving, of vehicles. This is regardless of whether the school offers to pay for extra insurance (which of course it should) as it does not remove the risk that the teacher could be personally liable if something goes wrong.

Safeguarding

Staff in independent schools have a statutory duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children under the Children Act 2004 in the same way that staff in state schools do.

All schools should have a written policy on child protection.  It is important that policies on child protection are implemented in conjunction with staff and are accompanied by full training.  Schools should also be mindful that any training should be updated and reviewed regularly to ensure that any changes to policies are fully understood.  New staff should receive full copies of guidelines/policies at induction, as well as full training on their use.   

All schools should have a senior member of staff who has designated responsibility for child protection and who must have received the appropriate training in dealing with child protection concerns. That designated person should be fully conversant with the multi-agency approach to child protection, which incorporates the local social services department and the police. It also includes the local child safeguarding board, which brings together all relevant parties in relation to child protection.  

Staff that receive any information regarding a child protection issue, or suspect that a student might have a problem, should pass the information on to the designated person only. It is not the responsibility of general staff to investigate suspected cases of abuse. The designated person is responsible for making the judgement on a child protection issue, and whether to pass that information on to the appropriate authorities for investigation. 

All employees have a responsibility to be familiar with, and to understand, the school’s child protection procedures and to report any disclosures or concerns they have to the relevant person. Abuse can occur in all cultures, racial and religious groups. Staff must be sensitive and respectful of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. However, these factors must not be used as a reason for non-intervention. 

Students should be advised that staff cannot guarantee confidentiality and may need to share information with others. If a student confides in a member of staff and requests that the information is kept secret, it is important the member of staff tells the student that he or she has a responsibility to refer cases of alleged abuse to the designated person for the student’s own safety. However, the student should be assured that the matter will be disclosed only to people who need to know about it, and will be kept confidential as far as is possible.

Class sizes

The union's minimum staffing establishment policy includes the following aims:

(a) A maximum class size of 20 in respect of early years foundation stage classes which should be staffed on the basis of two adults – one qualified teacher and one qualified support staff member (minimum level 3 NVQ or equivalent) – per 20 children.

(b) A maximum class size of 23 in key stage (KS) 1 classes.

(c) A maximum class size of 18 in practical groups, including GCSE and other classes which involve teacher assessment of pupils.

(d) A maximum class size of 21 in respect of classes of mixed age range.

(e) Staffing establishments in relation to sixth forms to be such as to ensure a maximum class size of ten.

(f) A maximum class size of 26 in all other timetabled classes (i.e. other than those listed above).

(g) The maximum class size and minimum staffing ratios for mainstream schools as determined at the start of each academic year, taking account of the number of children with special educational needs (SEN) and emotional and behavioural needs, in order to provide effective teaching and learning for pupils in each class. In some cases this will require the allocation of additional qualified teachers.

(h) The maximum class size and minimum staffing ratios for special school classes as determined at the start of each academic year, taking into account that pupils in special schools or units have a need for specialist SEN teachers together with provision for additional teachers/support staff to enable the teacher in charge to deal with the frequent issues which arise with pupils with special educational needs.

More information and guidance on class sizes.

Becoming a health and safety rep

Safety representatives are trade union representatives appointed by trade union members to represent their interests on health and safety issues.  The law gives them a range of rights and powers as set out in this briefing.  Trade union safety representatives must always be clearly distinguished from “safety co-ordinators” or “safety officers” appointed by employers or managers to help them carry out their health and safety responsibilities.  Trade union safety representatives are not accountable to employers or managers, only to trade union members.  More information and advice on becoming, and being, a trade union health and safety rep.

Taking action

As a member with a health and safety concern in your school, your first action is to talk to your NEU health and safety rep.  If there is no health and safety rep, hold a meeting of members and talk to them about your concerns and see if the issue is widely and deeply felt amongst your colleagues.  If so, you could take the matter to management and explain that members are unhappy with the issue at hand and you would like to seek a meeting at which the concerns of members can be resolved.  At this stage, by the way, why not seek election as the NEU rep (see below)? You should go into this meeting and raise the points you are concerned about and the actions you wish management to take.

As noted earlier, as a safety rep you can take action - such as carrying out health and safety inspections of the premises (or an aspect of health and safety such as stress) presenting your findings to the employer and requesting a response/remedial action.  You can report matters of concern to the employer, or take up matters on behalf of members.  You have a right to be consulted by the employer on all matters pertaining to health and safety.  You have the right to inspect documents and to the provision of information relevant to health and safety.  And you have the right to paid time off to carry out these functions.

If there is a health and safety issue in your school which hasn’t been resolved by the above means, you can call a meeting of members (you can also survey members to get an idea of the strength of feeling on the matter).  You can involve your local NEU for further advice and support.  It may be that matters have to be escalated to some form of collective action in order to obtain a successful result.

Not a health and safety rep?  Interested in becoming one?

Do you and your colleagues feel your health and safety could be better supported at work?  Do you think your policies around stress, COVID-19, asbestos, bullying and harassment etc. could be more supportive and better written?

Why not find out more about becoming an NEU Health and Safety rep?

You don’t need any experience of representation – we have a full training programme to support you. You just need a passion for fairness, a keenness to organise your colleagues and a willingness to speak out.

Find out how to get more involved in the NEU as a health and safety rep; and receive full training and support from your union.

Further information

All current NEU health and safety briefings are available from www.neu.org.uk.  Further advice and support on health and safety matters can be obtained from the NEU Adviceline on 0345 811 8111.