Risk-aversion in schools has gone too far, argues Andy Phippen. We need to empower our pupils to manage and mitigate risks themselves.

In last week’s Sunday Times, Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, called for a change in the risk-averse culture in our schools, claiming they have become places where children are so wrapped in cotton wool that they will struggle to deal with the sorts of risks we face in everyday life. She is proposing new training for inspectors to differentiate between safeguarding and risk aversion, and between “real and imagined risk”. Schools need, instead, to be ensuring child development encompasses “resilience and grit”.

I am surely not the only person who notes the irony in the head of Ofsted calling on schools to become less risk averse, given that the inspectorate, alongside recent education policy, has been instrumental in creating such risk-averse environments.

School safeguarding inspections are beset by policy, accident books and incident-response checking, rather than exploring the way the curriculum tackles social development, resilience and and emotional wellbeing. Schools failing to demonstrate due diligence in risk management themselves risk a serious reduction in their Ofsted rating – or even prosecution. In a particularly famous example, one school was so fearful of being seen to be negligent in its Prevent duty, it reported a child to the police for accessing the Ukip website on a school computer.

The removal of any risky activity is not good risk management

Within the UK as a whole we have become increasingly risk averse, a lot of the time as a result of misinterpretation of legislation – for instance with demands that parents do not take images of their own children in school plays for “data protection” reasons. Then there’s the moral panic that arises with any new piece of technology (“talking about sexting will encourage them to do it”), or when we just fail to understand the nature of risk.

Risk management is not about eliminating any incidence where something risky might take place, it is about understanding and acknowledging that risk may occur and that we need to be aware. The removal of any risky activity is not good risk management; it creates an unnatural and unnecessarily cosseted environment that will hamper healthy child development.

In my own area of specialism, digital risk, I am frequently frustrated by policy direction and school response. In recent times we have seen a number of concerning examples:

1. Children are accessing pornography; let’s stop them looking at it.

2. Children are cyberbullying; let’s stop them using the platforms that facilitate it.

3. Children might take an indecent image of themselves and send it to someone; let’s call for mobile operators to scan their images and decide whether or not an image is indecent – something the health secretary really called for at a recent select committee hearing!

We have a culture of prohibition that leaves us with a safeguarding dystopia preventing our kids from growing up with any awareness of digital risk, while at the same time seriously affecting their rights. Privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association are all hampered by recent DfE safeguarding guidance that views “online safety” as the use of “appropriate” filtering and monitoring to ensure children cannot be harmed by harmful content.

In my conversations with young people, however, the definition of “harmful content” can be so wide – potentially including news articles about terrorist bombings, videos where animals are harmed or even seeing an estranged parent on social media – that any prohibitive strategy to mitigate the risk of them being upset by anything they see online will always fail.

Empowerment is far more powerful than prohibition

The principles governing our approach to risk are universal: prohibition fails children. While eliminating the risk of a child hurting themselves on a school trip can indeed be achieved by putting an end to school trips, is this a positive thing to do? If we really want children to develop resilience and grit, we need to move away from the blame culture that uses policy and inspection as a threat, and move towards pragmatism and educating children to be aware of things that might go wrong, what they might do as a result and who they should turn to. Empowerment is a far more powerful tool in risk mitigation than prohibition.

Ms Spielman’s article is welcome, but the devil will be in the detail. I would hope the new training to “remind inspectors what safeguarding is about”, will focus on resilience, tools for disclosure, support structures and safe spaces, rather than prevention and prohibition. This should encompass all aspects of risk in social development, rather than placing things in boxes (the “online safety” box, the “radicalisation” box, the “bullying” box) and hiding behind policies and poorly-conceived understanding of legislation, which ultimately do little to keep children risk-free, and seriously erode their rights.

Andy Phippen is professor of Children and Technology at Plymouth Business School, and co-author of Invisibly Blighted: The digital erosion of childhood