Louise Hosking looks at the implications for health and safety when a school leaves local authority control

(Building 4 Education coverage, published 7th March 2015)

Taking safety seriously is our job.

Louise_Hosking1-e1424781717692Updated in January, the government’s Governors Handbook outlines how responsibilities within a school change when it moves away from local authority control and, for example, becomes an academy. This brings about a change of employer and can affect how a school or college operates. Where schools are under local authority control, for example, the council is the employer. This means the local authority is ultimately responsible for policy-related decisions and the framework for safety across the schools within their control. This does not mean these schools have no responsibility; they must still have strong internal arrangements, but the difference is that the council is ultimately responsible.

Once schools leave local authority control, it is the board of governors who then becomes the employer and, as the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 states, ‘it shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees and others e.g. pupils, contractors and visitors’. In practice, this means that the governors become wholly responsible for:

  • the health and safety of staff, pupils, contractors and members of the public
  • compliance with legal requirements (and being aware of it)
  • overall accountability and allocation of sufficient resources to comply with legislation
  • ensuring risk assessments are completed, then implemented; that training needs are identified and fulfilled; and policy and procedures meet legal standards
  • verifying that the headteacher is implementing policy, consulting with staff and managing operational safety on a day-to-day basis by expecting that progress reports, details of incidents and results from audits are reported back

Where schools are part of a trust, the board of trustees will ultimately decide on financial resources across all their schools. Therefore, it has the ability to influence safety and the responsibility which goes along with this.

The school health and safety policy sets standards, goals and expectations. It should contain a clear one-page statement of intent and the responsibilities of key individuals/roles. Arrangements describe how the policy will be implemented. The board of trustees, where it exists, should equally lay out its expectations for resourcing safety. The policy must be signed by the person in ultimate control of safety, the chair of governors.

When a serious accident occurs, it is rarely due to one reason but to a chain of events. If the chain had been broken, it might not have occurred. In the event of an accident and in due course, the decisions made by governors and trustees would be examined. In the case of schools under the control of the local authority, this would be the council. Very occasionally, individuals can be held personally responsible. If someone in a senior position has been found to have made a neglectful decision which directly led to the incident, they could face personal criminal prosecution.

It can feel harsh that volunteer governors take on such significant responsibilities and this is why legislation requires all businesses to seek advice and guidance from a competent person. This is someone with the experience, knowledge and qualifications to provide support. Once a school leaves local authority control, it is its responsibility to source this support and ensure it has the resources and co-operation necessary to guide and advise. Governors and senior staff should ensure they receive senior management training so they know what their responsibilities are and how to fulfil them.

In future articles, I will look at the role of the competent person, how to appoint someone suitable to assist and how to use their time effectively. I will also look at specific responsibilities schools have as clients when they commission building projects after 6 April when Construction (Design & Management) Regulations 2015 come into force.

Louise Hosking is a chartered safety and health practitioner and a director at Hosking Associates Ltd W: www.hosking-associates.com