Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Snow and safety

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There has been a good deal of confusion over the extent of legal responsibility for safety during snow and other hazardous weather.

Briefly, there are three considerations: the specific common law duty of care to young people; the duty of care to 'visitors' to premises; and the statutory duty, under health and safety at work regulations, to staff.

The duty of care to young people is still essentially the same as a reasonably prudent parent would apply to school life. The courts also would take into account whether the hazard is one that children might be likely to encounter out of school.

Therefore it is sensible to consider whether activities like mass snowball fights or an ice slide are particular hazards of school life, but the existence of slippery snow and ice may be considered to be something that any child venturing out of doors in snowy weather would be expected to cope with.

There are issues such as supervision, which may be affected by the number of staff available, but snow and ice in themselves are not an unreasonable hazard. There is no legal reason for ruling out mass study supervision of 100 pupils in the hall.

Similarly, it is possible to assume that visitors can be warned of hazards and be expected to avoid them and take care. There may be particular issues with visitors who have physical or mental disabilities, and there will be a need for extra care here; but again, snow and ice in themselves do not make a school or college unusable.

There is a statutory duty to ensure that staff have a safe work place, which goes beyond the duty to children and visitors. It is important that icy patches are coned off or clear warnings given at the place where the icy patch is. There is no duty to protect staff on their way to and from school or college.

The key issue is whether a danger is foreseeable and whether it can be ameliorated. Sensible rules which are effectively policed (no snowballing except on the field or no snowballing with anything but freshly gathered snow), will be a protection. If it is impossible to police effectively, then rules need to be more restrictive.

Heads and principals who open after careful consideration are unlikely to face legal action if an accident occurs. As Mr Justice Garland once put it: "There must always be a distinction between a counsel of perfection and the day to day management of risk and practicality."

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