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2.4.2 Health and Safety and Data Protection

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, we would like you:

  • To understand the key principles of health and safety;
  • Be able to correct colleagues who believe common health and safety myths;
  • Be able to plan an off-site activity;
  • Understand the responsibilities and expectations you must follow regarding health and safety and data protection.

Why does health and safety matter?

Wright et al. (2007, p.52) note that health and safety is one of the "general teaching requirements", but that teachers in specialist subjects will need to give more careful consideration. These subject areas are "design technology, art and design, physical education, science and ICT". For these subjects, it might be appropriate to highlight health and safety issues on each individual lesson plan. You might also keep a list of resources and the health and safety considerations related to each one (a spreadsheet can help you to manage this efficiently). For teachers in other subject areas, Wright et al. recommend that health and safety be considered on the medium-term plan, with individual lesson plans only needing to mention health and safety when there is a specific issue to address.

It is the school's responsibility to give you adequate training, but this may simply be guidance given as part of your induction. It is unlikely that you will be sent on a training course unless there is a specific need identified. For example, most staff may be advised to adopt a strict 'no touch' policy, while some senior staff or those on a special behaviour team will have dedicated training in safe restraint or physical intervention processes (in any event, all instances of physical intervention must be formally recorded).

What does the guidance say?

Despite how often you hear about health and safety in education, there is no specific legislation for schools. Instead, the Health and Safety at Work Act (HM Government, 1974) outlines the responsibilities that any employer has, including the responsibility employees have to keep each other (and anyone else on the premises) safe. More specific regulations are given in the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (HM Government, 1999). Many of these regulations are procedural and will not concern you as a teacher, although you should note that you have a responsibility to report any obvious failings of health and safety. Nobody knows your classroom better than you do, and it can be all too easy to simply stop using a faulty electrical socket or step over a loose floor tile. You could also be considered negligent for failing to follow (or be aware of) school procedures, such as for reporting pupil absences and knowing school evacuation plans.

Specific guidance was issued for schools by the Department for Education (DfE, 2014a). With only 8 pages of content, this guide is well worth a read to reassure yourself that health and safety is not meant to be an onerous task. The very first sentence emphasises the government's commitment to "reduce burdens on schools", and in particular, a desire to "simplify health and safety requirements and explain them better" (DfE, 2014a, p.3). There is also the reassuring advice that "teachers should be confident that they know best how to look after pupils and keep them safe… Children should be able to experience a wide range of activities. Health and safety measures should help them to do this safely, not stop them" (DfE, 2014a, p.3-4). Teachers are similarly encouraged to use a common-sense approach, including helping children to recognise and manage everyday risks.

Risk assessments

The DfE guidance is very clear that an individual risk assessment is not required for every activity, and that "needless or unhelpful paperwork" is avoided (DfE, 2014a, p.5). The principle is that a risk assessment should help you to identify and manage safety concerns, removing unnecessary risk. Your focus should be on helping pupils to do something safely, but in practice, documentation runs to great detail and seeks to identify every potential risk. You only need to prepare a new risk assessment when you are planning a new activity, otherwise simply reviewing existing arrangements is sufficient.

Myths about health and safety

There are three main myths that you will encounter as a teacher: health and safety requires lots of paperwork, teachers will be prosecuted if anything goes wrong, and strict guidelines must be followed.

Planning a school trip

The rules regarding school trips can vary depending on the type of trip. One obvious difference is a trip outside of the UK: since you will be in a different country, there will be a different legal system which you need to make sure you comply with. You also have a responsibility to check the licence of any adventure activities providers in England, Scotland or Wales. If an activity has a higher level of risk than normal school-based activities, or occurs outside of school hours, then you will also require written consent from parents/guardians. If you are teaching nursery-age children, you will need written parental consent for any off-site activity. It is also normal practice that parents should be informed of any trips so that they at least know where their children will be during the day, and schools typically ask for written consent as a matter of routine.

Who can help me plan a trip?

Legislation applies to employers, so the legal duty to ensure health and safety rests with your Local Education Authority for the majority of teachers, although this may be different if you are directly employed by an Academy Trust, supply agency, or other organisation. However, this responsibility is often delegated to a named individual within a school. There may also be Educational Visit Coordinators available locally to give specific support, but not all areas have these, nor do you have to use them even when they are available.

Consent forms

Consent does not need to be sought from parents/guardians for every trip. It is only a legal requirement for activities which are higher risk than a normal school day, or trips which are outside of normal school hours. In practice, however, your school and LEA will want parents to give consent. There will probably be a standard template completed at the start of the school year. An example is produced by the Department for Education (DfE, 2014b).

Incident reporting

Your school will have its own incident reporting procedures, and there may also be guidance from your LEA. If so, you need to follow these. They will normally require reporting of serious incidents immediately and all others by the end of the day, and data will be held for three years. However, this level of reporting is more likely to relate to your safeguarding policies than health and safety policies. In terms of health and safety, the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) are very specific in terms of what should and should not be reported to the health and safety executive. You need only report incidents where pupils are injured or killed as part of a work activity and are taken directly to hospital. Being taken to hospital as a precautionary measure, remaining at school or being taken home, even if for several days, is not reportable under health and safety rules - although it would be extremely unusual for a school to not record such incidents for their own purposes. Common playground accidents or even physical violence between pupils need not be recorded under the health and safety regulations, but again, you will probably have processes for recording these as part of your safeguarding policies.

Data protection

All UK schools will be registered with the Information Commissioner's Office. This is a requirement for any organisation which handles personal information. Notification is usually through your LEA, and must be renewed annually. You must also inform parents/guardians and any children aged 13 or over about your intention to process personal information. This is known as a privacy notice, and needs to be renewed each year. Many schools do this at the same time as checking that basic details (e.g. contact details) are correct. Schools must also give the option to opt-out. This could make routine tasks very difficult for the school, so it is important to show restraint and respect when collecting and using personal information so that opting-out is less likely. A good example of this is fundraising - schools might routinely send out letters, emails or texts to a full database without really considering whether consent has been given to use data for this purpose. As a compromise, it is good practice to offer an opt-out (or better yet, an opt-in) for marketing purposes.

As a general principle, you need to respect the purpose for which consent has been given. Giving contact details for emergency situations cannot be taken as consent for being sent notices about the school play, so as a teacher you should be wary of using databases of contact details. You should also be aware that the Information Commissioner's Office disapproves of profiling. Using a database of work contact details when you are looking for a sponsor for the football team's new kit could be seen as wealth profiling, which is not a legitimate use of personal data.

Your school will take care of many of the requirements of the Data Protection Act (HM Government, 1998) through routine communications. Monitoring for accuracy will usually take place each year when a renewed privacy notice is issued, but you can also help by highlighting any errors you find. If you are given a different contact number or know a pupil is moving home, this is a good point to check which details are held. However, your main dealings with data protection as a teacher will be making sure that data is kept secure. Your school will probably have an IT policy requiring secure passwords and setting computers to automatically lock, but you should also take care to secure a computer if you are going to be away from your desk (on a PC, press the windows key and L; on a Mac, press control + shift + eject or control + shift + power). You might also want to encrypt any USB sticks or put passwords on particular files (e.g. spreadsheets).

Conclusion

This chapter has looked at health and safety and data protection policies. Health and safety requires using your professional judgement to think about real risks, being wary of simply following routines to make yourself feel better. Pupils need to be encouraged to identify and manage everyday risks rather than teachers trying to eliminate risks. Procedures vary locally, but should all help you either to identify increased risks or decreased capacity to deal with problems.

Your professional judgement should be your guide, so you should be able to confidently defend your decisions on the suitability of your preparation. As we saw in the tragic case of Glenriddy Beck, it is more important to think about adequate supervision than any particular ratio of adults to children. We also saw how the conditions for being able to do an activity are not necessarily the same as the conditions for successfully dealing with an emergency. The over-riding principle of health and safety is not to stop pupils doing anything in particular, but to help them do it safely.

We have also looked at your duties under data protection rules, most importantly that you respect the limited consent of parents/guardians - think about the purpose you are using their data for, and if you can demonstrate that you have consent for it. Respecting privacy is as much about upholding your professionalism as it is about following the law, and as teachers we rely on lots of information so it is important to keep the goodwill or those who share their details with us.  


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