How to manage health and safety as a governor or trustee

Written by Scott Crichton on 3 March 2022

Managing health and safety within any organisation has never been more important than it is in 2022. Schools in particular require good governance, and health and safety is a vitally important aspect of this.

As a school governor myself, I understand that for those who take on this role, time is limited. You’re also dealing with a number of competing demands and working with financial constraints.

Additionally, as unpaid volunteers, we’re not there day in day out. This can mean that things may be missed, and there’s less opportunity to build relationships with individuals (though, arguably, this degree of separation can sometimes make it easier to ask more challenging questions that peers might not).

All of these factors make managing health and safety more difficult – nonetheless, it’s an area you can’t afford to ignore.

With all of this in mind, this article aims to explain, from one governor to another, what can go wrong, what your liabilities are, and how you can become more effective as a governor or trustee in respect to health and safety governance.

Cautionary tales

Volunteers give up their time to help organisations and, as such, you might argue that it’s unfair to hold these individuals responsible when things go wrong. However, when it comes to health and safety incidents, volunteer status isn’t enough to absolve governors of responsibility. 

In fact, in recent years, there have been a number of cases where governing bodies have been prosecuted, each providing valuable learning opportunities for other governors and trustees:

Example 1: In 2014, the Judd School of Tonbridge in Kent was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) under Section 3 (1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSWA) after a 14-year-old pupil was severely injured from a shot put thrown by another boy during a PE lesson. The pupil required emergency brain surgery and was left with a permanent indentation at the base of his skull. The school was fined £10,000 plus £1,375 in legal costs.

Lessons for governors and trustees: This incident serves as a critical reminder to always adhere to the measures prescribed in your risk assessments as well as any official guidance. PE can involve high-risk activities which can be managed effectively by following the Association of Physical Education guidance and ensuring teachers are trained in your measures.

Example 2: In 2016, the St Joseph RC Primary School of Mossley in Lancashire was prosecuted by the HSE under Section 3 (1) of the HSWA after a four-year-old pupil trapped their fingers in a toilet door, requiring a partial amputation. The school was fined £4,000 plus £1,750 in legal costs.

Lessons for governors and trustees: Effective health and safety management systems operate following a Plan, Do, Check and Act system. Part of this system is to monitor the controls you have in place to ensure they remain effective. Indeed, there is always more that can be done to make things safer – to adopt author Mike Hughes’ phrase, school leaders should “tweak to transform”.

Example 3: In 2019, Christ the King Catholic High School and Sixth Form Centre in Southport was prosecuted by the HSE under Section 2(1) of the HSWA after a worker fell from a roof, sustaining multiple fractures. The school was fined £10,000 plus £5,851 in legal costs.

Lessons for governors and trustees: Just because something is a regular practice, doesn’t mean to say it’s safe. Challenge poor practices if you believe there is a safety failing. Governors and trustees must remember that their health and safety duties extend to people other than those in employment, such as pupils/students, contractors, visitors and members of the public.

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Responsibility and liability

So, who has accountability and responsibility for health and safety within schools? And who’s likely to be held liable should an incident occur?

As a governor or trustee, you can delegate the day-to-day responsibility for managing health and safety to the Headteacher, School Business Manager or Site Manager. However, the ultimate accountability and liability remains with the Board.

Within Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), there is a Trust Board, and you may also have Full Governing Bodies (FGBs) in place at a local level who then delegate responsibilities to various subcommittees such as Finance and Premises, commonly known as the resources committee. 

Regardless of the structure of your school environment, health and safety should be owned right throughout the organisation and it’s important that it features on any meeting where governors or trustees are involved.

Should an incident occur, overall legal accountability for health and safety will rest with the employer – who the employer is will vary according to the type of school. This can be the Local Authority, the Governing Body or proprietor, or the Academy Trust.

Ultimately, when it comes to identifying defendants in health and safety cases, the HSE will look at who’s in control of premises and what degree of control they have over what’s being done. Therefore, if someone is going to be prosecuted, it would likely be the Board as the employer, whether that’s governors or trustees. And if a Board is prosecuted, those on the Board could be individually named.

As such, think of health and safety as ‘safeguarding’. The intention is to safeguard:

  • Your employees and their jobs;
  • Your pupils and others;
  • Your buildings;
  • Your school’s reputation and finances; and
  • Yourself.

Indeed, individuals can also be personally prosecuted under Section 36 and 37 the HSWA if there is deemed to be negligence on their behalf – making it even more important to get health and safety right.

The Department for Education (DfE)’s Governance handbook contains a whole section on compliance in which it sets out what effective governance looks like. Further, its Competency Framework for Governance lists six features of effective governance, all of which arguably encompass health and safety.

Discharging your responsibilities: 5 top tips

So now we’ve seen what can happen, and who will be held liable, what can you as a governor or trustee do to protect yourself, the school, and those under your care from the consequences of a health and safety incident?


Enlist support

Regulation 7 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations requires all UK employers to seek health and safety assistance. You can fulfil this duty internally if the competence exists within the school or trust or, where this is not believed to be the case, you can engage organisations such as WorkNest to support you as one of your competent persons.


Use an annual monitoring form

As a school governor myself, I split this document into meaningful and practical visits. I will typically visit the school three times per year solely to check in on health and safety, ask specific questions and see specific documentation. 

As a governor or trustee, you are looking for assurance that governance is being properly managed. For this purpose, you might want to appoint a health and safety nominator governor who should have undertaken updated health and safety awareness training.

You are not required to scrutinise every detail, but you will want to see that certain reports have been actioned, for example asbestos surveys and fire and legionella risk assessments. Remember, you don’t need to be a health and safety professional to ask challenging questions.

To make your life easier, WorkNest has developed a number of documents to help governors and trustees check what the school has in place and what is needed, including checklists detailing required risk assessments and training, both of which can be downloaded below.


Your job is to challenge (not to know everything)

As a governor or trustee, it’s important that you provide strategic direction for your school(s) and that you challenge the Headteacher/Principal in the direction and operation of the school.

I once heard somebody describe the role of a governor or trustee as “eyes on, hands off”. This is a good way to think about it; we exist to provide external challenge and scrutiny to the school and it’s operation.


Conduct a skills audit of the Board

It’s a good idea to undertake an audit of the various skills and strengths that your particular Board has and/or requires, and to identify any opportunities and areas of improvement.

As a starting point, ask yourself or your school(s) the following four questions in regard to the management of health and safety:

  • What are your strengths?
  • What are your weaknesses?
  • What are you doing to bridge the gap?
  • How do you know it’s working?

Be visible

Lastly, you will likely find that being present makes managing health and safety much easier. That way, employees will be aware of who you are, rather than seeing you as a distant figure that exists in name only, which will help to forge relationships and foster collaboration.

There are numerous examples throughout history of leaders who win respect and achieve results by ‘getting down in the trenches’ – and the same can be said of school health and safety management.

Final thoughts

Wherever in the UK you are based, and no matter what type of school you are a governor or trustee of, the regulator wants to see effective governance. By asking the right questions and taking on board the tips outlined above, you will be in a much better position to discharge your health and safety duties as a governor or trustee.

Of course, this is all the more difficult for MATs, where trustees may oversee 30-plus schools, leading to challenges of consistency and visibility. In some cases, MATs become too big too soon, without effective governance in place. With the government’s growing academisation agenda, plus the forthcoming raid on school budgets, it’s never been more important for schools and MATs to find pragmatic solutions and see health and safety as a key governance area.


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Stay safe and compliant with support from WorkNest

WorkNest has provided specialist Health & Safety support to the education sector for over a decade and has extensive experience working with Multi-Academy Trusts. Our goal is to help schools of all shapes and sizes save time, stay compliant with regulatory requirements, and proactively reduce risk, so you can be confident you’re providing a safe environment for staff and pupils and protected against worst-case scenarios. 

Our team of safety specialists support governors and trustees in their health and safety responsibilities through the provision of Board training, annual monitoring forms and real-time, multi-site software. You’ll also be assigned a dedicated consultant to act as one of your legally-required competent persons, who will support you with everything from annual audits to unlimited practical advice.

For information about our personalised, fixed-fee service and our unique four-pillar approach to health and safety in schools, call 0345 226 8393 or request your free consultation using the button below.

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