Taking Risks

If learning is messy, why do we make it so safe?

Education is a risky business. Yet despite all the talk about growth mindsets, resilience and development of the whole child , schools tend to curtail any sense of adventure or risk in children so they become little more than ‘controlled’, overdependent and disempowered. Conkers and snowballs are a definite no-no in some schools.

There won’t be many things that Amanda Spielman says that teachers will whole-heartedly agree with but when she talks about risk then she might have a few supporters.

Last year the Ofsted chief said that children were being denied the chance to develop “resilience and grit” because of schools’ over-zealous health and safety policies.

Spot on.

She went further and said that schools had to stop wrapping children in cotton wool and they had to do more to differentiate between real and imagined risk.

Spot on.

Ms Spielman also said she wasn’t a fan of seeing children wearing hi-vis jackets when out and about on school trips because it made them look like junior construction workers.

Spot on again.

For the last 20 years or so we have protected children from risk to such a level that it has definitely ill-prepared them for later life. Our uber-cautious risk-averse culture has limited children’s experiences and has arguably held them back.

Simply Barmy

A risk-averse school culture tied in health and safety knots means that children hear more “no’s” than “yes’s”. It means that children are constrained and where does all that pent-up learning go?

Of course safeguarding and protecting children is important but if we can’t trust them to use a pair of scissors in DT without a 4 page risk assessment then we’ve got things seriously wrong.

Ms Speilman said,

Trying to insulate your pupils from every bump, germ or bruise, won’t just drive you to distraction, it will short change those pupils as well – limiting their opportunity to fully take advantage of the freedom of childhood, and to explore the world around them.

Now months later some schools are starting to get risky. It was reported in various places that school playgrounds are at last becoming danger zones again.

Richmond Avenue Primary and Nursery School on Shoeburyness, Essex has got rid of plastic playhouses and brought in crates, loose bricks, a tyre swing, a mud pit and log stumps. At last some common sense.

For years, teachers have questioned the extremes risk has been taken to but it has often taken celebrities to get the cause heard and put on the agenda. Adventurer Bear Grylls has been calling for more risk and in his role as a famous survival expert and Chief Scout he has some influence,

I think if you strip risk out of young people’s lives, you kill their spirit. Risk is all around us, all of us everyday – you empower kids when you teach them how to manage that risk.

Embracing danger doesn’t mean throwing all your health and safety documentation out  and burning it on November 5th along with your ‘Outstanding’ Ofsted banner.

Correct health and safety measures still need to be in place but they don’t have to be done in such a way that stops children from learning and having fun.

Surely the best advert for intelligent risk-taking in the UK school system is Mike Fairclough, headteacher at West Rise Junior School in Eastbourne, East Sussex. This is the school where “children go clay-pigeon shooting, tend bees, smelt iron and even, on one occasion, slaughtered a pig”.

Mike Fairclough’s ability to assess danger makes some schools look ridiculous. He encourages his children to play with fire, cook, hunt, and learn knife skills while other schools worry about paper cuts. His school is a true beacon of creativity, authentic ‘whole-child’ education and common-sense. What he has achieved at West Rise has been remarkable and more schools could follow if only they stepped out of their comfort zones.

Read his book Playing with Fire and this will give you the manifesto you need to put risk and danger on the curriculum. It’s full of practical provocations and gets us to rethink our ideas that health and safety rules prohibit any activity with a potential for danger. He says,

The reality is that every school can take risks and engage in ‘dangerous’ activities, in the same way that I have done so at my school for years. No one is stopping them. The government, Ofsted and the Health and Safety Executive would all love to see schools embracing danger in a responsible way.

The 2010 NESTA report, ‘Learning to take risks, learning to succeed‘ argues that risk taking is a core skill and it isn’t something we should shackle.

Where adults dominate activities and tightly control activities and results, children and young people can learn less than if they make their own decisions and sometimes mistakes…Risk taking needs be re-framed and viewed as a positive, innovative and forward-thinking activity relevant to all areas of life.

No one is suggesting that children parkour around school holding syringes but certainly getting them to do riskier activities is back on the menu.

Risk is inevitable and important and we should all embrace it and help children to be courageous, thoughtful and positive risk-takers of good risks.

As Tom Bennett (2018) recently said, “No amount of bubble wrap can cushion the fact that the world is perilous.”

Risk is good.

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