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Friday, July 27, 2012

Safety is not a check box

I used to work at a high school where the children had to have a permission form signed by their parents every year in order to attend some of their school lessons, because walking to one department's buildings involved crossing a quiet, dead-end road that ran through school property. 

We are talking about teenagers crossing a clearly marked pedestrian crossing on a road to nowhere in broad daylight. 

That was just one example of the lunacy of a system that was suffocating its workers under a mountain of paperwork. I mean, the children even had to have a signed permission form to attend their own school concert, which was out of hours and involved being accompanied by their parents. 

And every form had to be marked off against a list, 

and every missing form had to be chased up... 

and there was a form for everything.

When I queried the craziness of this regime, I was told in all seriousness that any law suit might cause the school to close due to bankruptcy and then none of us would have a job. Yes, the endless mountain range of permission slips for the most ridiculously minor things was an attempt to stave off liability for absolutely everything, just in case.

Of course, it doesn't only happen in education.
The saddest thing of all was that the administrators really thought it was working. In my usual fashion, I tried in the first instance to approach the situation with humour; I circulated a form of my own to all staff. It began:


You must complete this form before completing this form.

It gave a lot of people a laugh, but it didn't change anything. The mentality was delusional and deeply ingrained. Nobody was stepping back and looking at the big picture- nobody could see how administering all that unnecessary paperwork was affecting the quality of the teaching. 

(Are you hearing me, EC professionals?)

It affected my teaching to the point where I finally left in disgust; I was there to educate, not to shuffle paper, yet I was spending hours and hours in my office trying to make sense of my overflowing filing cabinet and chasing up missing, pointless forms.

Hardly a sensible way to use the skills of a high-quality education professional.

Now, it's true that it's a litigious old world out there. Everywhere we go, people are trying to cover their backs with paper against the possibility of being sued. Occupational Health and Safety education encourages a worst-case mentality. Lawyers tout for compensation plaintiffs on TV. The labelling of hazards has become so ridiculous that there are websites devoted to comically idiotic instruction leaflets, signs and labels.

Another attempt to avoid liability...
We humans like to believe that we have control of things, don't we? (How delusional.) And there's a genuine belief in some circles that ticked boxes and words on a piece of paper somehow make us safer- not only in terms of liability, but in terms of actual safety

Yep, you're safer if you have a piece of paper to fill in to cover every possible thing that might go wrong. Aren't you?

NO YOU AREN'T. That's black and white thinking at its worst. And that brings me to the ridiculous levels of paperwork imposed on Early Childhood workers, not just in one centre but in most centres. 

Mostly, this is in the name of safety. (Partly, it's in the name of proving that we're not just babysitters, because it seems that some people still think that looking after children under 6 is just about changing nappies or wet pants and making sure they're not actively poking each other's eyes out with a stick- but that's an issue for another blog post.)

And yes, it's important that the room and the yard are free of serious hazards. It's important that we know how many children (and which ones) are in attendance today. It's important that we know whether the kids are getting appropriate nutrition while they're at care. And so on.

But spot the obvious mistake here.

NEWS FLASH: if your nose is stuck in an endless pile of paperwork, your eyes are NOT on the children. 

Filling in forms about safety can be less safe than not filling them in and instead concentrating on watching the children properly.

You need proof? Try this.

While you're filling in the form to show how many children and how many staff are in the room for the fourth time today (to make sure you have the correct ratio for safety), you are effectively NOT supervising the kids- which compromises the very ratio the form is meant to ensure.

Trying to write down every single thing that every child ate and drank today can stop you from spending quality time at the table with the kids, modelling good eating habits, discussing the food- and noticing if someone's choking on their carrot stick.

And so on.

But filling in too many forms has a more insidious effect. It's not just fatally flawed in terms of effectiveness- it can also reduce the quality of education.

If you've spent every moment from the time you arrived at work at 6.30am till the time the first child arrives ticking boxes, it's unlikely that you've engaged your creativity and used your knowledge of the children's interests when you set up the learning environment for the day.

Nor have you focussed your mind on what happened yesterday, how you can expand on it, how you can prevent any reoccurrence of some unfortunate incident...

No, you're just going through the motions, doing what you have to do every day on remote control. Time-eating routine is making you a poor teacher.

Excess paperwork and endless lists stop people from thinking for themselves. It's inherently dangerous. I've watched workers ticking and initialling away at closing time without engaging their brain at all- not just a few times, but regularly, in different centres, with different staff. If I inserted a box that said 'ensure all gas jets are turned on and windows taped shut', they'd tick it and sign off on it. 

Because nobody needs to use their eyes any more.
And here's another news flash for the bureaucrats.


Yep, most of the paperwork we do is not even accurate. There's a limit to how much paperwork you can do accurately in a day, you know. After a while, when the demands are stupid, you just give up and make it up as fast as possible.

I once saw a teacher send home a circular to parents about 'what we did today'. It described a cooking experience that hadn't actually happened; instead the teacher had cooked the food at home, then reheated it and served it up to the children. The children had zero agency in producing the food. That is not a cooking experience.

But the teacher had ticked some boxes. She'd put a cooking experience on the programme, she'd ticked it off as 'done', and she'd communicated with the parents by sending home the circular.

And THAT is the sort of behaviour that the current bureaucracy is unwittingly encouraging. Excessive paperwork makes liars of us all. We're in a hurry, so we tick boxes to say we've done things we haven't done- because we didn't have time, because the demands on us are already ridiculous, because NOT ticking the box will cause a snowball effect where explaining why the box isn't ticked will take up even more of our precious time and probably land us in hot water. Who needs that?

It's easier to just tick the damn box. Everybody does it at some stage.

Just because it's written on a form that the ratio was correct, doesn't mean that one of the workers- maybe even the boss- didn't go out of the room 'to the toilet' and spend half an hour on the phone to her boyfriend while the room was understaffed.

If no-one can't remember what Little Johnny ate- because, like the rest of the day, mealtime can be fraught with unexpected difficulties and interruptions to the routine- someone will make it up, just to get the form finished.

And so on.

And that can be dangerous, too. If you get used to making it up, sometimes you skim over the important things. I've found children left asleep in a rest room unsupervised, because someone forgot to do a head count as the class went outside to play- and that someone just made it up, instead of checking.

When is somebody up there in the bureaucracy going to wake up? If all the workers in all the childcare centres in all the world just stopped doing stupid, repetitive, dangerous paperwork and used their brains instead, would the sky fall?

I doubt it. And I bet the standard of care and education would improve.


  1. where to start candy....
    Is there noting more ridiculous then staff being made to tick a box if they have checked for spider Most days i have three kids, paperwork and sick staff to cover before the doors even open and i actually start being paid. The chances of mean actually looking for spider webs is about the same chance i got of being paid....none in hell.But HEY i tick it every day.! I cant wait to finish my degree and leave the industry so i can stop lying to myself and the families and chidlren i work for. Lisa Marie

    1. You know, the spider web thing almost got a mention in this post! I'm laughing my head off that you mentioned it!!

  2. I am hearing you Annie. The sad fact is that these types of insane bureaucratic demands are widespread through all walks of society.

    As for me, yes I admit to 'making stuff up' to aminly cover my own backside & to ensure my time was actually spent doing what I am trained for - caring for and educating the children.

    1. Yes Greg, it's not just us- but I think that in this particular industry the impact of the paperwork is particularly dangerous. We really can't afford to have our eyes off the kids for that long!

  3. 100% agreement from me. It's appallingly obvious to me that the mania for documentation is not improving safety - or any other facet of education. Quite the reverse: it is objectively making things worse, in every way, for exactly the reasons you cite. I see it constantly in my work: educators with their heads down over the lap top, or the iPad, or the camera, or the form, while stuff happens that they are completely oblivious to because they are recording other stuff - most of which never really happened.

    Incidentally, did you notice that if you accurately follow the instructions in the last image - the one about safety on the stairs - you actually ensure that everybody will run into each other? If you keep to the right when going up and the left when going down you are all on the same side of the stairs! It's just like driving on a road: you always drive on the left (in some countries) or on the right (in most countries) regardless of which direction you are heading on the road. Truly dumb. Dumb to think that people need to be told to avoid head on collisions, and even dumber to then give them exactly the wrong instructions.

    1. Hah, Alec- there's a blog post in that, too! That sign is the result of someone only looking from their own perspective- they're looking at it from the top of the stairs, so to speak, instead of taking a look from ground level too (oh yeah, that's STILL the right...). And THAT is a perfect symbol of the problems workers have with bureaucracy.

  4. I teach in a Head Start program in the states and we have our share of ridiculous paperwork, too. We have to repeatedly check the box that there is a lid on the trashcan, for instance, and repeatedly do safety checks on the playground. Every time, I duely note the safety concerns I have, and nothing, nothing, has ever been done about it, because I am certain that the paperwork, once submitted to the office, is never read. It is simply filed. Also, we must take our children's heights and weights, a process that eats up my side's time for most of the morning, and no one has ever been able to tell me what is done with this information, only that it must be done. I am certain this is just another example to a box that must be checked; yes, my center turned in their heights and weights, check, now file it into oblivion -- wasted time!

    1. A lid on the trash can, heights and weights... that's ridiculous!! What a waste of face-to-face interaction time.


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