Don’t get me wrong. Health and safety legislation is a very good thing. I remember a time when there were far more accidents in school playgrounds than there are now: girls handstanding against walls on unforgiving tarmac and boys kicking balls in confined, crowded spaces. And remember the casualties caused by those appalling tilting roundabouts in largely unsupervised, hard surfaced, public playparks? Broken arms – and worse – were commonplace.
Don’t get me wrong. Health and safety legislation is a very good thing. I remember a time when there were far more accidents in school playgrounds than there are now –girls handstanding against walls on unforgiving tarmac and footballing boys hard kicking balls in confined, crowded spaces. And remember the casualties caused by those appalling tilting roundabouts in largely unsupervised, hard surfaced, public playparks? Broken arms – and worse – were commonplace.
Things are generally better now because many accidents are anticipated and prevented - which is not, of course, to say, that children shouldn’t be encouraged to a certain amount of risk.
The problem with ‘Elf ‘n Safety’ is not the law. It's the ignorant and obsessive way the legislation is seized upon by people who seem to see it as a welcome opportunity to act, at best, like puritanical killjoys and at worst like control freaks. I see it in schools I visit all the time. Over-reactive policies (such as the security rules at the East London school I went to recently) can just be conveniently – and inaccurately - laid at the feet either of health and safety or child protection or, for good measure, both.
Take Lea Valley High School in Enfield, North London. Almost unbelievably it was reported last week that the school wrote to parents at the beginning of this term telling them they can no longer attend sports events held at the school. The reason? ‘Child protection rules.’
Now this large school (1280 pupils) has been a designated specialist sports college since 2002. It does a good job and has links with various top football, rugby and hockey clubs including Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United. "As a Sports College, we believe that PE and sport offer a unique pathway to enhance leadership opportunities, raise self esteem and develop community cohesion," declares principal Janet Cullen in rhetorical mode on the school’s website.
If their children are involved in something from taking a role in the school play, playing in a band, or being part of a sports team, the vast majority of parents will turn out in support. And sport, perhaps more than any other activity, thrives on spectator enthusiasm. We saw it again and again in the recent Olympics and Paralympics as competitors produced that last ‘impossible’ adrenaline-fuelled push egged on by their screaming supporters.
To deny children and young people this – and to prevent their parents from actively encouraging them - is outrageous and likely to impede the students’ development as players and athletes. Sport needs a crowd.
Over 250 schools in England are designated sports colleges. And almost every school in the UK is teaching sport and, even if it’s only occasional, trying to arrange fixtures with other schools. And what about all those sports days in the summer which even the youngest children take part in? I have never heard of another school banning parents from attending sports events and matches, many of which are traditionally held out of school time when the parents will be there anyway because they have had to escort or transport their children to the school.
Janet Cullen defended the decision at Lea Valley by declaring that the safety of the young people in the school’s charge is paramount. "Unfortunately we do not have the capacity to supervise groups of parents and friends who wish to spectate" she added, rather mysteriously.
Surely most of the parents in this school know each other and each other’s children? In most communities (though not all, as the tragedy in Machynlleth must remind us) that is sufficient protection. It’s very hard to believe that there is any need to supervise sports spectators in a North London secondary school.
Or perhaps there is something going on here we’ve not been told about. If some parents have made a nuisance of themselves then the appropriate thing would be to deal with the specific problem rather than issue a blanket prohibition.
As it is, how long will it be before these children stop wanting to participate in spectator-free sports events and the whole sporting ethos of this apparently excellent school begins to spiral down?
Child protection and health and safety legislation exist to eliminate some of the preventable horrors of the past. They should never be used as excuses to scupper childhood, learning and opportunity.