United Kingdom

Taking the risk register

Schools are facing many challenges as they adapt to the new rules around delivering education during a global pandemic. Against this backdrop, a holistic approach to risk management is invaluable, as Andrew Millard, Public Sector Practice Leader for the North at Aon Risk Solutions; Philip Morton and Paul Hobday, Aon Global Risk Consulting; Mark Wheeldon, Managing Director, ACT and David Campbell, Barrister explain.

With rules and requirements under constant review, schools have come under incredible pressure during the pandemic. But, with so much focus on ensuring they’re COVID-19 secure, it’s easy for the broader areas of risk management to be overlooked.

A good example of this is some of the guidance around reducing transmission of the virus. Warnings about the virus spreading on door handles and the importance of ventilation meant that some schools propped open their fire doors. But this was met with horror from fire services, who pointed out that, with fire doors open, a fire would quickly rip through any premises, including schools and colleges.

Having a holistic approach to risk management can prevent this type of oversight by ensuring that, where a school is grappling with new or evolving issues, every element of risk is considered and proportionate actions taken into account. 

Risk management obligations

It’s important to take this type of approach as schools have a number of obligations to manage risk effectively. Under the Health & Safety at Work etc Act 1974, schools are regarded as employers and therefore must ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of employees, children and other members of public on their sites.

As well as a legal requirement for competent advice in respect of health and safety, as they’re dealing with children, schools have a moral obligation too. Entrusted with their care, schools must take appropriate steps to ensure their health and safety at all times.

Schools do take these responsibilities very seriously and many have built up risk management expertise in key areas. For example, most have strict sign-off procedures for school trips and robust safeguarding procedures for child welfare.

Risk oversight

However, as the fire door example demonstrates, with so many pressures on their time and resources, few schools have the type of functioning health and safety risk management system that is commonly seen in large corporates.

This is supported by experience. When audited, schools routinely score the lowest for competent person for health and safety; risk assessments; accident reporting/investigation; fire safety; stress and site security. In addition, falls from height is a common issue during inspections.

Unfortunately, without a robust health and safety risk management system in place, it’s easy for some risks to be overlooked, with potentially devastating consequences. Figures from the HSE show there were 55,000 non-fatal work-related injuries a year on average (2017/18-2019/20), of which 19% required more than seven days’ absence.

In addition, without the right system, schools can struggle to defend themselves in the event of claims, which can be costly. Provisional figures from the HSE for 2019/20 show there were 25 notices issued by inspectors in the education sector, with two prosecutions and £40,000 in total fines.

Recent examples of prosecutions for health and safety breaches in the sector include a £3,350 fine for a school after a pupil sustained severe cuts to his hand and tendon damage when using a band saw; and a £300,000 fine for a local authority following the death of one pupil and injury to another after a collision with a school minibus.

Barrister, David Campbell comments: “The consequences of failings are not merely emotional, because of injury to a child, colleague or member of the public. They are reputational and can have costly legal consequences. The importance of a holistic approach is that it can help make your school resilient to legal intrusion and ensure that you can get on with what you do best – teaching.

“Legal proceedings will involve time, money and unwelcome distractions but can, in our experience, be avoided, if a holistic approach to health and safety can be displayed at the moment any third-party investigation begins.

“By showing that a school has procedures in place that are flexible to changing needs, and where safety is treated seriously by all staff and contractors, a school can ensure that any unfortunate accident remains just that, and does not become a complex and costly problem for m’learned friends and food for an ever-hungry media, social or otherwise”.

Developing a holistic approach

Building a holistic approach to risk management requires a number of steps, although the nature of these can depend on what’s already in place and the needs of the school.

Central to this is a robust and meaningful policy, supported by processes based on best practice and experience in the various risk management specialisms. This needs to be flexible and dynamic to meet the everchanging demands on schools. COVID-19 serves as a great example of the importance of this, with schools having to flex and adapt between different class sizes and mixing bubbles as the respective localised tier and lockdown system change.

The risk management expertise required means that schools are often outsourcing some of this function. In addition, with schools reviewing their spend and budget control, we’ve seen some move their risk management support away from local authority services.

Where external expertise is sought, it’s essential that checks, governance and due diligence are in place. This should look at areas such as whether the service is appropriate and the competence and accreditation of experts. For example, a telephone advice line may be suitable as backup where more specialist advice is sought on key areas of risk but it might fall short on delivering the holistic support a school requires.

Creating a risk management culture

It’s also important that any risk management approach is driven by the leadership team and has buy-in from all staff, including those who aren’t in teaching roles. This ensures risk management is taken seriously, and that everyone is aware of the different issues they might encounter.

Taking this approach also helps to create a risk management culture, where the focus is on the overall risk implications faced by the school rather than just the one or two areas that are under review. By making risk management second nature to everyone within the organisation, it will help to create safer schools and remove some of the pain they experience when new risks or challenges emerge. 

More information

Aon is a leading adviser to the education sector, with many years’ experience of helping schools and other educational establishments arrange insurance programmes and manage risk. We work with schools of all sizes and types, helping them develop health and safety risk management strategies that meet their varying needs.

To find out more about the services and support we can provide, contact Andrew Millard at [email protected]