Tobogganing down stairs 'is good for children’

Children should be allowed to take risks, says a headmaster who lets his pupils camp out on school fields and toboggan down staircases to help develop "judgment and common sense". 

He said that too many schools used health and safety rules as "an excuse for not doing things", which risked undermining "the soul" of childhood. 

"The mood across the country is changing to one where risk is not just acceptable but essential in a child's education.

Robert McKenzie Johnston, the head of a private girls' school, said yesterday that it was acceptable for pupils to "get grazed knees and bruised noses" to encourage self-awareness.

Mr McKenzie Johnston, a former lieutenant-colonel in the Army and at present headmaster of Queen Mary's School in Thirsk, North Yorks, made the comments amid a growing debate over the so-called cotton wool culture. 

This week, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents warned that bureaucracy was preventing children leading a healthy and robust lifestyle. 

Queen Mary's offers extra- curricular activities including abseiling, judo and gorge walking. 

Mr McKenzie Johnston told the annual conference of the Girls' Schools Association in Leeds that his 230 pupils were also allowed to camp out in the grounds and place gym mats over school staircases to "toboggan down them". 

Pupils go on supervised late-night walks through woods in the school grounds — without the aid of torches or mobile phones — and swim in a river running through the grounds to develop a love of the outdoors. 

"I think the girls need to assess risk themselves," he said. "If they learn themselves what is sensible, they will make mistakes and they will get grazed knees and bruised noses, but it doesn't matter because they will learn from that what they can and cannot do." 

Mr McKenzie Johnston served in the Queen's Royal Lancers for 22 years before becoming a headmaster 14 years ago. 

He hit out at teachers who hid behind health and safety legislation to refuse to go on school trips. The NASUWT teaching union advises members to refuse to supervise pupils in case they are sued. 

Mr McKenzie Johnston insisted that there were "no instructors necessary for tobogganing down staircases". 

"I think health and safety is about judgment and common sense," he said. "It is about protecting the child, not the institution. 

"Health and safety has been used as an excuse for not doing things. That's not what it was intended for. It was so we could do things safely." 

He added: "The mood across the country is changing to one where risk is not just acceptable but essential in a child's education. 

"It is our job as teachers to introduce them to risk in a sensible but protected way — but not in a way that removes all risk. If you remove all risk you remove the soul."