Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Verdict naming head in boy's death overturned

One follow-up story that failed to get wide coverage was the Court of Appeal overturning the conviction of the head in Wales who was fined after a three year-old jumped from steps in the playground, hit his head and later died of MRSA in the hospital.

In May the Court of Appeal declared the conviction of the head, Mr Porter, to be unsafe. It pointed out that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) interviewed the head ten months after the event, and it was four years before he was brought to trial for breaching his obligation to conduct the school in a manner that removed risks to 'visitors'.

The Court of Appeal was scathing in its judgement of the processes followed by the HSE, and the quality of evidence adduced against Mr Porter. It was also critical of the judge for allowing the matter to be considered by the jury at all, since it was not established that a risk existed.

Some indication of their attitude may be gleaned from this comment: "All the evidence suggested no risk other than the risk that every time a child was unsupervised that child might go down a flight of stairs."

Sensibly, no one suggested that in every school or public place a child must be "closely supervised" (to use the words of the judge) when the child chooses to go down stairs.

The court took notice of the fact that the gate and fence placed across the stairs at the HSE's insistence actually increased the difficulty of supervision. The court reiterated something that should be at the head of every risk assessment: "There is no obligation to alleviate those risks which are merely fanciful." It also suggested that the absence of any previous accident in a day-to-day activity like climbing stairs is a powerful indication that a suggested risk is merely fanciful.

Though this judgement was reached on the particular facts of the case it does show that the higher courts take a more robust view of the dangers of everyday life than is sometimes assumed. Members should not be careless of health and safety but they do not need to be timorous either.

It is perhaps significant that a coroner in Wales recently declared a child's fall on Snowdon to have been an accident. He said there was no way that anyone could have anticipated that a particular stone would move and throw the child off the mountain.

He also said that parents should not avoid taking their children into such places as taking risks was essential for growing up. The idea that 'accidents will happen' is more prevalent than we think among those who deal with sad events of this kind.

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