Taking risks is a healthy thing for children
There was a plaque at my old school to the memory of boys who had died in an appalling, though largely forgotten, disaster. It took place 80 years ago next month at an annual fair held in aid of the hospital in Gillingham, Kent. As usual, the fete was to conclude with a demonstration by the fire brigade. Throughout the day, two firemen, dressed as a bride and groom, had paraded around the park collecting money and attracting an audience to watch the event. Shortly after dark, they headed towards their new " – a 40ft tall three-storey wood and canvas structure, where the reception was to be held.
Once the "party" was under way, flares were to be lit in the house to simulate fire. The bride and groom and their guests, all played by firemen, naval cadets and sea scouts, would shout for help, and the firemen would rescue them. It had been staged for years without a problem and was very popular.
This time, it went tragically wrong. The flares ignited a real fire and within minutes the house was a conflagration. Relatives of the participants laughed and cheered, thinking the screams were part of the demonstration. Only when figures engulfed in flames, and illuminated by a searchlight, started leaping from the roof did the full horror hit them. Fifteen people died, including nine boys aged between 10 and 14.
I was reminded of this tragedy by the latest hoo-ha over health and safety laws. A survey carried out by Teachers TV uncovered a litany of bizarre restrictions and precautions in schools across the country. They included a requirement for children to wear goggles and protective clothing in order to use Blu-Tack, a five-page briefing for teachers on how to grapple with a Pritt Stick, a PE lesson cancelled because the grass was wet, and children forbidden to eat sweets because of the risk of choking. These can be added to the now familiar examples of conker fights banned from the playground and the decline in school outings that, for many of us, are an abiding childhood memory.
As the disaster in 1929 testifies, there is a clear need for proper precautions to mitigate the risk of activities to participants. The issue today is how far this should go – and whether it has gone too far. When I was at school, we were not even issued with goggles while experimenting in the chemistry laboratory; my children, however, did wear them and I would have been appalled if one had lost an eye because such a basic safety measure had been overlooked.
On the other hand, we went on geography field trips that involved scrambling up rocks and jumping into waterfall plunge pools that would today either be banned or only take place with ropes, helmets, wetsuits and other gear, making them unaffordable.
It is all a matter of balance and it is one that we have got wrong – but why? After the latest survey by teachers, Judith Hackitt, the chairman of the Health and Safety Executive, said: "Hardly a week goes by without another health and safety myth appearing. Health and safety is blamed for a lot of things not going ahead, but they’re often about something else – high costs, an event that requires a lot of organising or fear of getting sued. Children cannot be wrapped in cotton wool – risk is part of growing up and our children need to learn how to manage risks in the real world."
But these are not health and safety myths. They are responses to a risk-averse culture that is ingrained in our society. There was a time, not that long ago, when a child falling over and getting hurt in the playground would have been accepted by everyone as an accident. Yet now there is a constant search for someone to blame. If little Johnny breaks his ankle in a three-legged race, teachers are more likely than before to be confronted by an angry parent demanding to know why their boy was allowed to participate in something so obviously risky, if rarely dangerous. Many schools no longer stage "traditional" sports days because children fall over and can get hurt.
Teachers are accused of being overly cautious; yet they are often responding to parental mollycoddling that does not allow children to cross the road unaided and insists they are driven to a school that is within easy walking distance because of some irrationally exaggerated fear of abduction, assault or accident. Yet my impression is that youngsters today, far from being risk averse, are attracted to high-octane adventures that many of their parents would blanch at, such as skydiving, white-water rafting or bungee jumping.
Because terrible things can happen does not mean all risk should be eradicated. To hear stories of children being denied enjoyable and educational activities because there is always the faintest chance of something going wrong is depressing. We can teach children to be vigilant and sensible without being frightened of their own shadows. But if parents expect teachers to exercise common sense, then they must play their part by not always looking for a scapegoat when things go awry.
© The Telegraph Group