Steve Wood of SMW (Tree) Consultancy Ltd explains why it is so important for schools to have a tree

A school is a place where parents expect their child to be safe, so every part of the school’s safety must be assessed. From DBS checks for staff to fire safety, gas checks and Legionella risk assessments, these tests are in place to keep children and staff safe, so why should a school’s outdoor space be any different? If a school has trees on the site, then it is their responsibility to make sure they are safe, as to comply with the legal aspects under the Occupiers Liability Act 1957 & 1984, Chapter 3. This ensures that anyone entering the school site does so under a safe condition. Often schools are aware of this, but seldom relate it to trees. Unfortunately a fatality featured in the news is not an uncommon occurrence these days, with terrorist attacks and natural events such as earthquakes it is almost a daily occurrence. What we are not used to seeing is a fatality in the news, when a tree caused the fatality. This is because the likelihood of a tree causing a fatality is extremely low. Nevertheless, it is because of this low statistic that it is most likely that the fatality would feature, as the media capitalise on the unusual as it attracts the public’s attention. Naturally, and of course rightly, fatal and serious accidents are investigated and can result in prosecution and now even prison sentences. Thus, it is imperative that a regular inspection of a school’s trees is implemented. No tree can be guaranteed safe, but this is not a licence to cut down all the trees within a school’s site. Research to date supports that the risk of major injury from trees are minimal and a recognised risk of everyday life, which a large amount of people will accept without a second thought. Therefore the management of trees should be dealt with on a rational and cost-effective basis. But there are other factors that should be considered, such as the overall landscape and aesthetics of the site, as well as the ecological value that trees have. A landscape without trees would be depriving the school community of the enjoyment of trees and their wider benefits. A tree can be a statement for a school; it may have significant historical value, maybe the founder of the school planted the tree? A well-managed tree maintenance program will prolong the life of the tree and if this ethos is carried through to the rest of the site, then the school’s grounds could equal the stature of a grand school building. A natural emphasis for school maintenance, is on the buildings, where the majority of the school’s activities take place. With the government wanting children to become more active, outdoor activity is shifting the balance from the building to the outdoor spaces, and the maintenance of the outdoors needs to be of equal importance. With the input of grounds maintenance staff and the consultation of tree professionals the site can be brought up to the same standards as the building and, although tree surveys are not mandatory every year like fire safety and gas checks, the emphasis should not be drawn away from their importance in the foundations of an outdoor safety strategy, the frequency of which is determinable on a site by site basis by a professional tree surveyor. A key objective for the school owners and persons in charge is to maintain a defendable position without excessive spending. Landowners and managers who know how important the school’s trees are, tend to take an interest in them: including their setting, how the land is used, the structural benefits and the positive attitude that it creates. While the school owners and managers may need to react to events involving dangerous trees (such as, high winds causing tree failures) as they arise, it is also prudent to have forward-looking procedures to keep tree-related risks at an acceptable level. These procedures do not need to be complicated: a tree survey carried out at intervals determined by a tree consultant, being proactive with the resulting works and asking a staff member to walk the grounds occasionally. Though a staff member may not be able to assess a tree at the same level as tree professionals, obvious hazards can be picked up upon, such as a branch failure and be reported to a tree consultant. When it comes to tree management, the costs can be sizable, especially if the trees have not had a management plan for several years and therefore require extensive works. One of the most significant benefits of having a management plan in place is that it allows for bursars to divide budgets for future works in a predictable year by year basis from the previous years’ work. The initial cost could be larger in the first year and the bursar will need to see what their budget will permit. Generally, if a school hasn’t had a management plan in place before, then it is a respectable idea to bring the site up to standard; this may be dictated by several factors such as: budget restrictions, volume of corrective remedial works and frequency of activity in an area. Ideally, all work resulting from a tree survey should be carried out, thus ensuring the greatest safety levels possible. The utmost important factor is that the budget limitations should not compromise the site’s safety. It must also be considered that the school’s insurers may insist on a tree survey being carried out to mitigate their risk of a claim on the school policy. Tree inspections are not complicated if prepared by an experienced, qualified, professional, preferably one who’s familiar with the needs of school’s high safety perspectives. The presentation should be easily understood by a lay person and professional alike and, catalogue the trees health status and necessary corrective works to be completed within a given time scale and a recommendation when a re-inspection is advisable. If the school does not have a tree management plan in place, then it’s strongly advisable to contact a Arboricultural Consultant who will advise on what they can offer to make a safer environment for the school. A beneficial source is to contact any fellow compatriots to enquire if they know or use someone or your Local Authority may be able to help. Remember, if there are trees on the grounds of the school, the significance of getting a tree survey is paramount. Safety should always come first. Article written by Steve Wood, Arboricultural Consultant at SMW (Tree) Consultancy Ltd Bibliography Common sense risk management of trees by National Tree Safety Group

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