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10.54 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) on securing this debate. It is an honour to be allowed to participate in what appears to be central Berkshire week. I will not take personally her references to obese men. I appreciate the responsible way in which she put her concerns about this incident in context, especially in relation to the importance of young people participating in sport at school.

Let me clarify where the responsibility lies for the health and safety of pupils taking part in sports days or in any other school activity. The Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 and its associated regulations place a general duty on employers to protect the health and safety not only of employees but of others affected by the activities of their organisation, so the responsibility for the health and safety of school pupils rests either with the local authority, for community and voluntary-controlled schools; with the governors, for foundation and voluntary-aided schools; or with the proprietor, for independent schools.

The employer is required by the regulations to conduct an assessment of the possible risks arising from the school's activities and to introduce measures to minimise those risks. We expect the relevant personnel to discharge that responsibility professionally and in accordance with statute and good practice.

That is not to say, as my hon. Friend said, that we should wrap our children in cotton wool. There are risks in many things that we do in life, and we cannot deny our children opportunities that will enrich their lives, nor can we ban every sporting activity for the fear that it carries some risk of injury. It would also be wrong to give any impression that teachers are to blame in advance of a full investigation of any individual incident.

Naturally, in this case my sympathies go out to Bianca, who must have suffered a great deal of pain from the injuries that she sustained, especially to her legs. My officials have spoken to her head teacher and I am happy to learn that she has now returned to school, albeit on crutches, to resume her education. I wish her a speedy recovery.

I understand that the event at which the injury occurred was organised by Reading borough council. The council's lawyers are currently investigating the incident, so my hon. Friend will understand that I cannot at this stage comment further on it specifically, but I have asked my officials to liaise with officers in Reading, and we must consider whether any lessons can be learned.

Bianca's mother, Mrs. Mendes, certainly has a right to know the truth about the incident, and my hon. Friend, as the Member concerned, has a right to be involved in that

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process, representing Mrs. Mendes in accordance with her wishes. I hope that my hon. Friend will find that reassuring.

I further assure my hon. Friend that if she feels, as a consequence of further investigations into the incident, or because it has brought to her attention issues in which she was not fully involved before, that Ministers should be aware of implications or lessons, I will be pleased to hear from her at an appropriate time.

I take this opportunity to express my sadness at the recent deaths of Bunmi Shagaya, who drowned on a school visit to France, and Yusun Moolla, who drowned on a school visit in Warwickshire. My thoughts, and I am sure those of the House, are with their families, friends and teachers as they struggle to come to terms with their terrible loss.

Inevitably, many parents will be worried about whether they should allow their children to take part in school trips. When things go so tragically wrong, it is a natural reaction to want to cocoon our children and prevent them from participating in school trips or extracurricular activities of any kind. Of course we must reflect on what went wrong, the lessons to be learned and any action that the Government can take further to reduce risk. However, we are not prepared to engage in a kneejerk reaction or to rush to judgment. That often leads to wrong decisions being made for the wrong reasons, and to bad legislation and bad guidance.

Millions of pupils in this country participate in incident-free school visits every year. They derive tremendous benefit from taking part. The educational and personal development opportunities that such visits present are an integral part of the learning experience that we offer our young people. There is no justification for suggesting to parents that they should prevent their children from participating in such activities.

What is vital is that the adults who organise the visits plan their itineraries carefully, assess what might go wrong, and take steps to minimise the likelihood that it will go wrong. That process of assessment should continue throughout the visit, so that any changes in plans are similarly assessed and action taken. The steps to take are set out in a guide produced by the Department called "Health and Safety of Pupils on Educational Visits", which is free to all schools, and to parents too if they want a copy. It is also available on the Department's website.

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The guide was drawn up with the assistance of health and safety experts, teachers, tour operators and activity providers, the police and rescue services. It is regarded as robust, and it draws together a lot of good advice. In the context of the debate that has taken place after the recent tragedies, it is reassuring that the guidance has received significant praise from the media and from people in the education system. They consider that it offers a high-quality framework.

I hope that parents will retain confidence in a system that sets out to ensure that pupils can reap the benefits of school visits without coming to harm. It goes without saying that my officials will look carefully at the findings of the inquiries that have been set up, and that we will update our guidance if we find that there are lessons to learn.

On the specific subject of school sports days, I wish to refer to the excellent work carried out by the British Association of Advisers and Lecturers in Physical Education. Its booklet, "Safe Practice in Physical Education", contains a wealth of helpful advice to schools about how to ensure that children can take part in all forms of physical education safely. The advice is based on accepted good practice arising from experience in the field, and I know that physical education teachers all over the country find it helpful and informative.

Another good practice guide produced by the Department for Education and Skills provides comprehensive guidance on the design of school grounds—a matter that may be relevant in this case. The guidance includes planning advice for sports facilities, and covers issues such as cordoning-off areas for field events that involve throwing, and providing safety cages for hammer and discus events. All measures should be designed to enable activities to take place in a safe and secure environment, but without placing unnecessary restrictions on participation.

My hon. Friend highlighted a number of important issues in her contribution to this debate. I hope that she feels that the Government take such concerns seriously. As I have said throughout, we are committed to learning all relevant lessons from specific incidents that result in injury, or worse, to young people. I should be grateful for any contribution that my hon. Friend feels she can make to ensure that we learn the lessons from the incident that she has described, and from more general concerns.

Question put and agreed to.

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