Forest School in the UK may seem to be a fairly new movement, however, in reality the concept is based on a rich heritage of outdoor learning going back at least to the 19th century. Philosophers, naturalists and educators such as Wordsworth, Ruskin, Baden Powell, Leslie Paul, Kurt Hahn, Susan Isaacs and the Macmillan sisters all laid the foundations for what is known today as Forest School.
During the 1970s and 80s the UK education system moved toward a more teacher / outcome-centred approach in an attempt to improve numeracy and literacy, primarily through the introduction of a national curriculum. Somewhat in response to this, there was a growth of ‘alternative’ educational models in the 1990s and it is in this context that Forest School emerged.
In 1995 Bridgwater College developed a BTech in Forest School and started to offer it to early years practitioners in particular. Many involved in outdoor learning saw this as something that built upon the UK’s outdoor learning heritage and soon Forest School was being offered around the UK.
In Worcestershire alone, there are 360 “forest schools”, mostly primary schools, which typically give pupils one woodland learning experience each week. The idea of exposing small children to knives and fire might seem scary, however, safety is of paramount importance during Forest School sessions. All leaders of Forest School must have a Level 3 Forest School qualification, which covers essential safety training such as risk assessment and food hygiene. There should always be adult supervision and guidance whilst the children are taught to understand risk and encouraged to assess risk for themselves.
Because Forest School learning is child-directed, the scope of the activities that can take place is enormous. Typical activities include:
Each Forest School may have differing facilities to operate within and as such each should be assessed accordingly. Policies and procedures should be written which are appropriate to individual requirements and circumstances. Not all schools have the facilities to conduct activities on-site and therefore may have to use local amenities, such as parks and woodland.
The age, any medical condition or ailments and the disposition of the participating children should be considered when attending a Forest School environment, with the risk assessment highlighting any concerns and controls which should be put in place.
As Forest Schools can involve activities in and around trees, Local Authorities, as tree owners, should be mindful that the public safety aspects are addressed as part of their approach to managing tree health. A sensible approach will ensure the maintenance of a healthy tree stock, the sound management of the environment and will usually satisfy health and safety requirements.
An effective system for managing trees should meet the requirements set out in the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and the associated ACOP (guidance is contained in HSG 65 Successful health and safety management and INDG 163 Five steps to risk assessment).
Local Authorities should also be mindful that the Occupiers Liability Act 1957 states that a duty of care is owed to all visitors and that the occupier must be prepared for children to be less careful that adults.
Bringing hazards to the notice of visitors comes within Section 1(5) of the Occupiers Liability Act 1984. The occupier (in this case – the council), discharges his duty by ‘taking such steps as are reasonable in all circumstances of the case to give warning of the danger concerned or to discourage persons from incurring the risk’. Any signage provided must be clear.
The provision and use of work equipment regulations (PUWER) 1998 would also have to be considered for all hand tools such as saws and knives as these should be used safely and appropriately maintained. Specific consideration should be given to the suitability of work equipment, maintenance and inspection and training.
Safeguarding of children should also be of significant importance, with particular attention drawn to the Children Act 1989 (as amended) The Children and Social Work Act 2017 and the Safeguarding of Vulnerable Groups Act 2006.
The Management at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to carry out risk assessments and make arrangements to implement necessary measures, appoint competent people and arrange appropriate information and training.
The Health and Safety (First-Aid) Regulations 1981 makes provision for appropriate first-aid provisions, specifying that employers should provide, or ensure that there is provided, such number of suitable persons as is adequate and appropriate in the circumstances for rendering first-aid to his employees if they are injured or become ill at work.
A careful consideration of the location and contextual factors of the Forest School based on the deliberations of a risk assessment will need to be drawn up and implemented. These considerations should include:
In our experience, the public liability policy of a typical council would not generally exclude Forest School activities, however, if there is any doubt then clarification should be sought.
Forest school has developed over the years and offers a wide range of activities, some more hazardous than others. They offer a number of benefits to children including social and physical / health. They also provide the individual with the ability to learn about risk. Forest School arrangements require a documented approach in order to effectively manage the risks, which includes clear policies and procedures and the establishment of appropriate competencies. Through the robust implementation of controls, Forest School environments are able to offer effective learning opportunities whilst managing the risks effectively.