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Why educate children and young people about safety and risk?

The United Kingdom is one of the safest countries in the developed world in which to grow up. It is also one the unhappiest places according to UNICEF. One of the ways children develop socially, emotionally and cognitively is through play. Understandably, adults often restrict children's play to safe, indoor spaces where they are very unlikely to be injured. In the UK this trend has happened only in the last 20 or 30 years. Before that, children played outdoors, often unsupervised for many hours, especially in the summer months. If children are to be allowed the freedom to play outdoors again, and gain all the social, emotional and physical benefits this brings, then they need to learn how to take risks and keep themselves safe.

In this article we explore the importance of both safety and risk education in our schools and provide links to key documents to support schools to develop policy and practice.

Why safety education?

Safety education is the teaching of specific knowledge, skills and understanding that children need in order to stay safe in a given situation. Generally, schools themselves are safe places for children of all ages, so the focus of safety and risk education is to prepare children and young people for the world outside of school, now and in the future.

Accident statistics are also often quoted as an important justification for safety education in schools. In the UK accidents are a leading cause of death and serious injury.

In England and Wales in 2012, 139 children under the age of 15 died as a result of accidents. In 2012/13 the rate of emergency admission to hospital for young people in England was 104/10,000 under 15 year olds and 131/10,000 15-24 year olds 1. While most accidents in childhood are not severe many of those injuries can lead to a lifetime of disability. For further information, see the RoSPA Big Book of Accident Prevention.

Roads are an especially hazardous environment for children and young people of school age: 21/100,000 children under the age of 15 were killed or seriously injured on England's roads (2010-12). In Britain overall, 4,626 children and young people of school aged (4-19) were killed or seriously injured in road accidents in 2012.

Workplaces and young people

Although generally the UK has a good record in injury prevention, fatal/serious accidents to young people in the workplace are also a concern. As educators we need to be aware that young people often lack the experience to recognise hazards in unfamiliar settings and may lack the confidence to ask for help or advice if they feel unsafe.

A report by Lord Young - Common Sense, Common Safety - in 2010 has resulted in changes to the inspection regime for workplaces, eliminating pro-active inspections. The Löfstedt review (2011) states that there is no need to change radically existing health and safety legislation in the workplace, but argues that there is considerable over reaction to and over-regulation of some areas of workplace health and safety ( Schools can help prepare young people for the workplace through work experience and safety education. RoSPA has a dedicated website for young workers, their employers and work experience organisers -

Schools and Government Policy (England)

In England, a range of government policies encourage schools to focus on safety and risk education:

  • Keeping safe continues to be an important outcome for children and young people under the Children Act 2004.
  • Information about the revised national curriculum implemented in schools from September 2014 can be found at:
  • Safety (and risk) education are included in several statutory subjects including science, design and technology, and physical education. RoSPA's comments on safety and risk education in these proposals can be found here.
  • The national curriculum includes health and safety as part of the general teaching requirement for all teachers. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has a useful summary of the general teaching requirement for health and safety -
  • All schools in England, including academies and free schools are required to publish their curriculum online, including their provision for PSHE education, which includes safety education.
  • There is currently a Parliamentary Inquiry into the need for PSHE education to be statutory.
  • The Department for Education in England has published a statement about PSHE education within the curriculum:

In its statement on PSHE education, the DfE says:

"... we expect schools to use their PSHE education programme to equip pupils with a sound understanding of risk and with the knowledge and skills necessary to make safe and informed decisions."

The pre-existing non-statutory guidance for secondary schools can be accessed at:

Additional help is also available from the PSHE Association which has published a new programme of study for PSHE education and includes safety and risk education. This is available to both members via their member's log-in and for non-members on request: [email protected].

Ofsted and safety education

Ofsted takes a positive interest in PSHE education, and in a report in July 2013 found that 40 per cent of the teaching of PSHE education was inadequate or required improvement. There is a positive correlation between schools which are rated good or outstanding overall and their grade for PSHE education.

The National Healthy Schools Programme includes PSHE as one of four key areas that must be addressed. Some local authorities offer support for schools to achieve or maintain their Healthy School status.

Why risk education?

The concept of risk underpins all aspects of PSHE education, including safety education. While safety education prepares children and young people for specific situations, risk education prepares them for unanticipated or unknown situations, where they may have had no specific instruction or learning opportunity. Whether we are considering drug education, sexual health or road safety, children and young people are being asked to recognise what can cause harm (hazards), assess risk (the probability of harm) and explain how to control risks to themselves and others in familiar and unfamiliar environments. Good practice in safety education requires us to "teach safety" AND "teach safely". However, research by the Health and Safety Laboratory suggests that teachers focus more on "teaching safely" and less on helping their pupils and students gain understanding of risk or experience of the risk assessment process as described in the general teaching requirement - Why is this?

One reason may be that teachers, like most members of the public, don't understand risk in the same way that health and safety professionals do. The risk assessment process - hazard recognition, risk assessment and risk control - is essentially a rational technical model and most of us simply do not operate like that in our day-to-day lives. It also takes no account of the benefits of risk taking in our physical, social and economic wellbeing.

Often we make judgements intuitively and unconsciously when in different settings or we base our decisions on our own experience, on our feelings and on information which is easily available to us, for example through the media. We are more likely to rate something as "risky" if the possible consequence is very severe, even if that outcome is very unlikely or delayed, while we underestimate the familiar risks we take every day, such as driving, particularly if we feel in control and we derive benefit from the activity. While it is understandable that we all assess risk differently, important decisions are made on the basis of our assessment of risk - whether to drive to a meeting or take the train, whether to invest in fencing to keep people away from cliff edges or accept that there will be rare but fatal accidents - so it's important that those decisions are made systematically and on the best available information, including making an assessment of the potential benefits involved in the activity. To find out how children perceive risk see an article from RoSPA's Safety Education Journal, written by Dr Jenny McWhirter, Click here to read the article in full.

Understanding the technical, rational model of risk

The risk assessment process begins with recognising hazards. So what is a hazard? A hazard is something that might cause harm. Some hazards are obvious because they are objects - ladders, worn carpets, garden ponds, are all hazards. Other hazards are only apparent because of the effect they have on something else - for example bottles of chemicals or food which has not been stored correctly can become hazardous. Some forms of behaviour like violence or bullying are also hazards. And behaviours like neglect or inattention can increase the potential of hazards to cause harm.

How can we learn to assess risk?

Risks can range from "intolerable" to "trivial". Risk is made up of two components - probability and "consequence". Very often we focus most on the negative consequences or severity of harm, but we should always bear in mind that many activities which are potentially hazardous are also well controlled so the level of risk is actually quite low. We also have to remember that things or activities which are hazardous also have the potential to benefit people as well as harm them. A good everyday example would be electricity in the home.

So when we make a risk assessment we are weighing up several complex bits of information – what might happen (good and bad) and what is the probability that the various consequences will actually occur. Risk assessment gets even more complicated when we think about who might be affected – is the risk for the individual only or for other people? For example, if a child of school age has an accident, a parent may have to stay away from work to look after them. This could affect the family finances.

We also need to ask what other factors might affect the likelihood of an adverse outcome. There are health risks associated with drinking alcohol, but the risks change if we also drive a car when we have been drinking.

Finally we have to recognise that the level of risk associated with many hazards is affected by our experience of that hazard and the environment. A child may learn to look both ways before crossing a road, but does she also know that she should do this in a car park? So we have to take into account the unfamiliarity of the environment and the possibility of some unknown or unforeseen hazards when assessing risk.

Can children and young people assess risk?

Some approaches to education for the early years show that very young children can take an active part in assessing risks to themselves – for example Forest Schools.

Of course, we can't and shouldn't expect the youngest children in school to be able to take responsibility for formal risk assessment. However, research (Spiral into control) suggests that as they mature children and young people are increasingly capable of contributing to structured risk assessments.

Teachers tell us that where schools have involved children in assessing risk and setting school safety rules, the children are both more likely to comply with the rules and contribute to enforcing them. Schools have a statutory duty to take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure the safety of pupils and staff on school premises and when taking pupils off site. However, it is also vital to share with pupils the skills of recognising hazards, assessing risks and taking steps to control risk. Otherwise when young people gain greater independence from parents and teachers and move on to unfamiliar environments such as the workplace, they are likely to have accidents and injuries. More generally, understanding risk is all about helping young people to make sound judgements when coping with danger and uncertainty. It is an important life-skill which they can take with them into adult life.

See below for an example of an activity which could help pupils to understand how risk assessment can help them to keep safe in a familiar environment: the classroom.

Risk assessment activity for pupils aged 9-13 years

Aim: to help pupils understand how to assess risk.

Intended learning outcomes

  • Pupils will be able to recognise some familiar hazards, assess the level of risk and explain how the risks can be controlled
  • Pupils will be able to recognise where the risks associated with some hazards have been controlled
  • Pupils will be able to carry out a simple risk assessment in a different but familiar environment.

Ask the pupils if they know what is meant by the word "hazard". Collect up their answers and display the following definition.

A hazard is something that might cause harm.

Some hazards are obvious because they are objects or situations - cliff edges, hot liquids, moving vehicles, broken glass, deep water are all hazards. Other hazards are only apparent because of the effect they can have on something else - for example food which has not been stored correctly can become hazardous. Worn parts in machines can cause accidents. Plastic bags can suffocate if used incorrectly. Other hazards are forms of behaviour. So bullying and neglect are all hazards because they have potential to cause harm.

Invite the pupils to look around the room. What objects could be hazards? Examples might be back packs, chairs, trailing wires. These are all trip hazards - people might trip and fall. What might be the consequence of a fall in the classroom? Collect up the pupils' responses. These might include:

  • Nothing
  • A graze or bruise
  • A head injury
  • A twisted muscle
  • Looking or feeling silly.

Ask the pupils if they can decide which of these outcomes is:

  • The most severe
  • The most likely.

Based on both of these factors, which of the different trip hazards is the most risky? Who is most at risk? Are some people more at risk of tripping than others? What could be done to reduce the risk to everyone in the room?

Explain to the pupils that what they have done is take part in a risk assessment. Risk assessment is something we do every day although we usually don't stop and think about it the way they have in this activity.

Now ask the pupils to look around the room again. Are there any risks which have been controlled? An example might be the use of a toughened glass panel in a classroom door, or a self-closing spring on the door. Doors in schools and other workplaces often have glass panels so that you can see if someone is standing outside the door before you open it towards them. The glass is toughened so that you can't cut yourself if you push on the glass section. Doors often have self-closing mechanisms to prevent them slamming suddenly and as part of fire safety.

Ask the pupils to work in groups and identify other hazards around the school - for example in the gym, or hall, the laboratories, on the playing fields. What steps have been taken to control the risks?

Review and reflection

What other hazards have the pupils identified? What steps have been taken to control the risks? Do they have any other suggestions for controlling these risks?

Pupils have been learning about the risk assessment process. This involves:

  • Recognising hazards (possible sources of harm)
  • Assessing the risk (possible consequences and how likely they are to occur)
  • Suggesting actions to control risk to self and others in a familiar environment.

Follow-up activity

Ask the pupils to carry out a risk assessment in another familiar environment, for example their bedroom or kitchen at home, the garden, local park or playing field.

Next time you are planning to take pupils off site, share the risk assessment process with them. What hazards do they think they will face, what will be the risks. Which risks are severe? Which are trivial? Which risks should they pay most attention to? What can they suggest to help to control the risks?

Encourage the pupils use the risk assessment process in other aspects of PSHE such as drug education or sex and relationships education.

How do we know what is effective in safety and risk education?

In 2008 the PSHE Association and RoSPA worked together to research and publish 10 principles for effective safety education. A recent review of the evidence has affirmed these principles.

April 2014


  1. For a breakdown of these figures by local authority area see:

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