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FEATURES - THE DANGERS OF PLAYTIME

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Killjoy councils are banning children from exciting playground games because of a fear of being sued in the event o...
Killjoy councils are banning children from exciting playground games because of a fear of being sued in the event of an accident, reports Rebecca Coombes

The findings of a survey by the Children's Society , which found that councils have vetoed risky playground fun in case they are sued, may be simplistic, but they do show councils going to new lengths to protect themselves.

Nearly half the 500 children polled were banned from playing with water and 36% told not to climb trees. Nearly a fifth had bikes and skateboards banned.

There were a few extreme examples - one primary school outlawed daisy chains because pupils might pick up germs. And bushes in one playground were fenced off to stop children going into them and getting dirty.

But are councils really overreacting to the hazards of yo-yos, handstands and other time-honoured childhood pastimes? Or do they have real grounds to fear damaging lawsuits if children in their care sustain an injury?

There are an estimated 44,000 accidents in UK playgrounds each year. The vast majority of these are minor, but compensation claims are on the increase, according to insurers Zurich Municipal.

'Public liability claims are increasing 10% year on year,' said a spokeswoman for the company, which runs courses for councils in how to keep playgrounds safe and fun. But she added that the rise was part of a general trend across the population to seek damages for injuries.

Peter Heseltine, playground safety officer for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, adds that ambulance-chasing solicitors have encouraged parents to claim for even minor injuries.

'There is an increase in the number of claims being made, largely because of these new legal claims bureaus - legal bucket shops, as I call them,' he says.

Faced with an increasingly litigious society, councils have to draw a fine line between making playgrounds safe and fun.

Mike Kendal, county secretary of West Sussex CC, claimed councils were increasingly nervous of playground activities and did err on the side of caution.

'I heard of one case where a parent sued after their kid came off the top of one of those skateboard loops. They are very exciting for those children who are adept at skateboarding, but how do you stop those who aren't having a go? You can put up notices, but children will have a go irrespectively,' he said.

At Hampshire CC, Chris Holt, the education officer for primary schools, says councils could not be blamed for taking a hard line on safety.

'Ultimately if a parent decides to sue a school, and therefore the council education department, a governing body has to be sure it has carried out a risk assessment robust enough to stand up to the challenge. Obviously there is a balance to be struck. You want children to have fun. It's all about context - handstands on tarmac could be dangerous, but if I saw children doing cartwheels on the playing field maybe that would be different.'

But local government lawyer Charles Ward is concerned councils have become 'paralysed' by the risks of being sued.

'You can never prevent all accidents from happening, but just make sure it is an accident, not injury arising from lack of training,' he says.

Mr Heseltine, who has been making independent reports on playground accidents for 15 years, agrees that councils who abide by health and safety legislation have nothing to fear.

'It is about basic good management, for example, playgrounds must be designed properly and installed with the appropriate surfacing. Staff must be trained appropriately and keep documentation [in the event of an accident]. If you do that you are very nearly fire-proof.'

Sadly, some organisations do still show a lack of care towards play facilities - the Children's Society found some playgrounds had closed because the equipment did not meet European standards and had not been replaced.

However, those with more robust policies had a sporting chance of challenging claims for damages, said Mr Heseltine. 'These no-win, no-fee solicitors need a 50% chance of winning before they take these cases on and, in actual fact, these claims are easy to resist if the council is doing its job properly.

'Of the 500 cases I have dealt with, less than 5% have gone to court.

'As long as councils can demonstrate a responsible attitude to safety, there should be no need to wrap children up in cotton wool,' he says.

'Minor cuts, grazes and bumps are inevitable and, if you fall awkwardly, so are broken limbs. The important thing to remember is that accidents are quite good things in playgrounds as they help children grow, learn and develop.'

The Dangers of School Trips

A number of tragic deaths on school trips have prompted the government to draw up new guidance on safety.

School trips normally fall outside the regulations on adventure activities introduced after the Lyme Bay canoeing disaster, when four children died in Dorset in 1993.

But under the new advice council education departments should appoint an 'outdoor education adviser' to oversee and monitor trips and, more controversially, each school should have a named member of staff to act as an 'educational visits co-ordinator'.

It means each school should be skilled at carrying out risk assessments - including preliminary visits - and understand that it may be necessary to call off trips.

Unions fear teachers are already too overworked to take on extra roles. But Chris Holt, education officer for primary schools at Hampshire CC, said: 'There needs to be a person in a school who does know all the rules and regulations to make sure the trip is safe.'

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