Playing with fire? ‘Fearless’ headteacher to advise Health and Safety Executive

A headteacher who puts shotguns in the hands of primary children, encourages them to play with fire and has herds of wild animals roaming through the school is to be the new face of health and safety.

Mike Fairclough’s ability to assess danger – and yet still take risks – has led to a request to collaborate with the national Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

West Rise Junior School in Eastbourne, East Sussex, where Mr Fairclough is head, came to prominence when it was named TES primary school of the year in 2015. Its innovative curriculum – children go clay-pigeon shooting, tend bees, smelt iron and even, on one occasion, slaughtered a pig – was subsequently profiled in TES.

As a result, the school came to the attention of Dame Judith Hackitt, HSE chair. She is planning to visit West Rise in March, to demonstrate that health and safety need not mean wrapping children in cotton wool.

West Rise has a herd of water buffalo on-site. “Enormous horned animals,” Mr Fairclough says. “”We want children to be able to engage with the animals, but not perhaps to walk across the field with something that looks like a bag of food for the buffalo, because they’ll be mauled to death.”

Both Dame Judith and Mr Fairclough agree that only by embracing the danger – with correct health-and-safety measures in place – can children learn.

“When our hives are opened, you have thousands of honey bees on the children,” Mr Fairclough says. “These are children who, prior to that experience, will be running away from one honey bee in the playground.

“It’s expanding outside your comfort zone. Staying in your comfort zone is the worst thing you can do.”

West Rise runs a forest school in nearby marshes, where children use saws and axes, and learn how to make fire.

“If we don’t allow children to explore fire – to understand the dangers as well as the benefits – the appeal is going to be there, anyway,” Mr Fairclough says. “They’ll go home and play with matches.

“The reality of life is that there’s danger in it. Things happen that knock us for six sometimes. By expanding your awareness, you’re more likely to be able to deal with things when they come up.”

This is an edited version of an article in the 29 January edition of TES. Subscribers can view the full version of this story here. Read the full coverage in this week’s TES magazine, available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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