We want a culture of risk-taking in schools? Brilliant – but let’s remember what risk actually means

Olympic BMX crash
This will definitely happen

The Olympics have brought about much soul-searching, but the lesson that keeps floating to the surface is: let’s get kids doing more dangerous stuff. “We are saying out with the bureaucratic, anti-risk culture which has led to a death of competitive sport in too many schools,” said David Cameron yesterday.

I think I agree. But Mr Cameron, perhaps, should be careful what he wishes for.

We certainly do have a risk-averse culture. But it’s a highly specific kind of risk to which we are averse. We are petrified of certain kinds of high-profile but low-probability risk, but indifferent to other, more objectively dangerous but less dramatic ones. Murder, paedophilia, terrorism: these get headlines. Diabetes, asthma, traffic deaths: these don’t. But you are likely to be afraid of the first three, despite them being far less likely to affect you.

There’s a simple reason for that, called the “availability heuristic”. We judge the likelihood of something happening by how easily we can call to mind examples of it; how available it is to our memory. In his new book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the psychologist Daniel Kahnemann describes the mental process: when we are asked a difficult question, instead of analysing the statistics of it – a job for the rational part of the brain – we often allow our instinctive “gut reaction” part answer a related, simpler question. So in answer to the question “How dangerous is terrorism?”, our brain, instead of going through the laborious statistics of it (“What do I know about the death rate from terrorism? How certain can I be of those statistics? Am I personally at more or less risk than the base rate?”), provides the answer to the question “How easily can I think of an example of terrorism?”

And, because the images of terrorism are visceral, dramatic and widely repeated in the media, the (statistically misleading) answer is “very”. The same applies for child-murder, even though, of course, your child is far, far more likely to die chasing a football out into the road. In general, Kahnemann says, a high-profile public safety story can trigger an “availability cascade”, a spiral which leads to the huge overestimation of the probability of a given risk. For example, he says, the US public rates the risk of death from accidents at about 300 times that of the risk of death from diabetes; in fact, diabetes is four times as likely. Similarly, strokes kill twice as many people as accidents; 80 per cent of the public judge accidents to be more dangerous.

There’s nothing we can do about that; it’s human nature. But if we are calling for a less risk-averse school culture, we should think about what risk actually means: the likelihood of something bad happening at random.

What will happen, if we successfully instil a risk-seeking attitude in our schools, is that more children will die or be seriously injured. That might be fine. As I mentioned the other day, it might be “risky” not to make cycle helmets obligatory, but all the evidence suggests that public health is generally improved by keeping cycle helmets optional. It could be that British children’s health is improved by making more kids play dangerous sports – it will really stop people dying of diabetes and congestive heart failure – and the small number of children injured or killed is a price worth paying.

But read that back to yourself. “The number of children injured or killed is a price worth paying.” That doesn’t sit easily, does it? There’s a sacredness about human, and especially children’s, lives that makes us feel that they can never be a price worth paying. Again, we can’t help it: it’s human nature. So the first time a child is killed in a tragic pole-vaulting accident, or is decapitated by a discus or catches Weil’s disease from the long-jump pit, we have a news story, a public scandal, a crackdown on risky activities in schools; an availability cascade.

What’s more we’ll have a public hunt for a scapegoat, because humans aren’t very good at statistical thinking. Instead, we look for causal stories, even when they’re inappropriate. We won’t be able to think “This is the inevitable consequence of the increased risk we demanded”, and we will instead look for the specific thing that went wrong, the PE teacher who had been drinking the previous night, or the piece of apparatus that wasn’t properly installed. But nationwide, thousands of PE teachers will have had a drink the night before giving a lesson, and thousands of vaulting horses will have a missing rubber foot. It’s just on this one that it happened to cause a disaster.

Something like that will happen. It is inherent in the whole idea of a less “risk-averse” school culture. And it won’t be anyone’s fault: there will be no need for a public inquiry, because we know why it happened; we asked for it to happen. But we are incapable of thinking like that. We will find someone to blame for the tragic accidents that we have all demanded we make more likely. First it’ll be PE teachers, but later it will be politicians (“Why oh why won’t somebody think of the children?”).

To reiterate: Mr Cameron may be right that there is too much concern over child safety in school, and that public health would be better served by letting them run around, hit each other with conkers and tap-dance across major roads. But he is going to have to have some steely political nerves to hold that line in the face of the first high-profile PE injury. What’s more, we in the press who agree with him have a responsibility to remember that we called for it, and not to hunt for scapegoats; if we want risk in schools, we have to accept the consequences.


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