Going to school should not be a risky business

Every day, we assess and manage risk.  If we are crossing a road, we look for oncoming traffic in both directions, before deciding when it is safe to step off the pavement.  We look in the fridge and decide whether or not to something cooked yesterday or which is a day past its use by date is safe to eat.

Some of us are more prudent than others: the canny will consider available income before splashing out on a desired item.  The rest of us tend to just close our eyes and hope that as a result of our splurge, we don’t run out of money before the month’s end.

Of course, some love the thrill of taking a risk. Hence, the willingness of so many to take on seemingly impossible and/or foolhardy activities, pitting themselves against nature in scaling sheer precipices, ski-ing off piste or throwing themselves out of a plane with only a parachute for company.  Frankly, if we were to assess the risk of every activity properly and fully, some of us would never bother getting out of bed.

Which is one reason why assessing and managing risk in organisations and businesses is a discipline requiring highly qualified individuals with a seemingly endless enthusiasm for spreadsheets and jargon.  It is also in many areas, a required activity in law and in practice.  Failure to do so adequately can result in regulatory reprimand:  where the risk is of a suitably serious nature it can shut down operations and worse, result in tragedy.

But what leads to tragedies like the death of Keane Wallis-Bennett is not the failure to assess and manage risk but the failure to address it. Doing the former has become a multi-million pound business:  like most local authorities in Scotland, Edinburgh City will have a team of people and a slew of software, processes and procedures which generate a highly detailed and complex register, requiring regular reports to key personnel.  The annual cost of all this activity across all public sector bodies?  Tens of millions.

Yet, the management of risk is not, by itself, an exact science. Judgements on the likelihood of risks together with their likely impact/consequence and whether or not they are likely to happen are subjective. Human nature is an influence: the risks adults face and the consequences of not managing or addressing those risks will feature more frequently simply because it is adults who make the decisions.  Financial considerations play a role, as do politics, even if at a sub-conscious level:  elected members being lobbied by vociferous local communities for improved street lighting, pothole filling or dog poo bins will feel the dread prospect of votes lost if they fail to act. And the cost of addressing such risks will also be pretty small beer – making straitened budgets go further is always a consideration. Especially if that council has had to settle eye-watering compensation claims for vehicles damaged by poor local roads in recent years.

Then there is the absurdity of the current financial approach. There is an annual ritual of roadworks in the last two months of every financial year as local authorities rush to spend out capital allocations before they disappear.  Partly this is because the process from identifying budgets, agreeing spending priorities, tendering for work, committing funds to contracts and timetabling activity can, and does, takes months.  But it also results from underspend arising from such programmes, particularly winter maintenance revenue budgets, and the dread silo approach, where few councils insist on taking all repairs and maintenance budgets back into the centre to determine on council-wide rather than department-focussed priorities. Ultimately, there is a pressure each and every year to spend out rather than save up.

This maelstrom of competing factors and considerations helps to determine which risks need to be mitigated by action.  Sitting looking over the shoulder of it all is health and safety law, which many have developed into a reason to prevent things from happening.  Too often, health and safety law provides lazy and lame excuses for disallowing activity which is considered too hard to make happen.  Thus, some councils might ban the visiting of farms by young school-children on the grounds of risk to health, yet those same councils will allow those same children every day in life to use toilets which lack hot water, contain cracked sanitary ware and are not cleaned (in some cases) every day.

In the public sector, the burgeoning of risk assessment and management across organisations neatly highlights some of the key arguments for reform. Millions are spent at not making issues go away and on producing nothing very useful to citizens but white collar jobs, infrastructure and systems are invested in and sustained in order to enable and feed all this circular activity.  The financial framework  drives short-termism so that strategic analysis of the failure to address risk over the long term is often absent.  And those with little voice, those furthest from power and influence, find that the risks to their well-being are the ones least likely to be addressed.

For if none of that were so, top of any local authority’s risk register would be the need to invest in providing every child in Scotland with a high quality space in which to learn and to spend the 30 or so hours a week they are entrusted to the council’s care.  They would not have to suffer sitting in classrooms draughty through metal window frames long past their replacement date;  they would not have to eat in shifts, or corridors or in some cases, outside;  they would not have to listen to the constant plunk of dripping water into buckets from leaky roofs, upsetting their ability to concentrate;  they would not have to take in their own drinking water because water fountains are broken or considered to be germ factories;  we would not have disabled children being changed on floors because of a lack of accessible facilities; we would not have parents fundraising furiously to make playgrounds fit for playing in;  we would not have children suffering back problems due to a lack of locker space.

We would not have any of this if we applied the same rigorous requirements to schools as we apply to our own, adult work spaces.  And if we did, we would have spaces which encourage and enable children to learn and to flourish, resulting in improved educational attainment and enhanced life chances for all. Given what we know about the influence of environmental factors on performance, why is a high quality learning place for every child not the highest priority for all councils?  Take a look at any local authority risk register and the potential for our children to fail in life as a result of a crumbling school will not feature as a risk.  And I doubt if the likelihood of a school in a poor state of repair and condition to cause the injury or death of a child is probably at the top of the register either.

Because if it was, we would not have poor conditions in any of our schools.  And even if we did still have wobbly walls in gyms, we would not wait until a young life is tragically, needlessly lost before requiring them to be fixed.