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Thursday 4 March 2021
As schools adapt to the new rules around delivering education in a pandemic, a holistic approach to risk management is essential.
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, the broader areas of risk management can easily be overlooked.
Take the guidance around reducing transmission of the virus as an example. Warnings about how it could spread on door handles and the importance of ventilation saw some schools propping 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 a building.
Having a holistic approach to risk management ensures that, where a school is grappling with new or evolving issues, every element of risk is considered.
Schools have a number of obligations to manage risk effectively so taking this approach is essential. Under the Health and Safety at Work 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, there’s a moral obligation too. Entrusted with the care of children, 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.
However, as the fire door example demonstrates, with so many pressures on their time and resources, few schools have a functioning health and safety risk management system that is commonly seen in large corporate organisations.
This is supported by experience. When audited, schools routinely score the lowest for competent person for health and safety; risk assessments; accident reporting and 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 Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show there were 55,000 non-fatal work-related injuries a year on average in the education sector (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.
Building a holistic approach to risk management requires a number of steps, although the nature of these will depend on what’s already in place and the needs of the school.
A robust and meaningful policy is essential, with this supported by processes based on best practice and experience in the various risk management specialisms. It also needs to be flexible and dynamic to meet the everchanging demands on schools.
The risk management expertise required means that schools often outsource 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.
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.
Andrew Millard (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Client Manager in Aon’s Public Sector Practice Group.