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Safety First

The Guardian

Would your child know what to do if a friend was choking, or had fallen off their bike? Lucy Atkins reports on a scheme that takes 10-year-olds into casualty to learn how to avoid accidents and save lives

It is 10 am in the accident and emergency department of the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford.  Fourteen cheerful 10-year-olds are playing with oxygen masks, gawping at x-rays, having their fingers put in plaster and getting hooked up to heart-rate monitors. They are here as part of the Injury Minimisation Programme for Schools (I.M.P.S.), a scheme running in six cities across the UK that brings schoolchildren into hospital casualty departments to learn how to avoid accidents and how to deal with them effectively when they happen.

I.M.P.S. is at the innovative end of a growing drive to make kids more accident aware.  The British Red Cross runs a campaign for first aid education in schools, and recently issued a report saying not enough is being done to promote child safety.  The Audit Commission last year also issued a report saying accident prevention needs to be a far higher priority in schools.  I.M.P.S. is integrated into the National Curriculum and reaches around 30,000 children from 750 UK schools each year. And yet it relies on hand-to-mouth fundraising and receives no direct government funding.

According to the Child Accident Prevention Trust, accidents are a far greater threat to children than, say, child abductors or internet predators. Last year around 250 children and young people died in accidents in Britain – four times as many as were killed by family abuse or neglect, and 12 times as many as were killed by strangers.

Injuries alone put around 100,000 children and young people into casualty each year and the figures show a depressing social bias: those from less well-off families are far more likely to be killed or admitted to hospital, and are more likely to have worse injuries.

Children often find themselves at the front line in an accident – whether at home, in the park, the street or the playground – with a crucial window of time in which to act, and no clue as to what to do. I.M.P.S. is the only programme in the UK to bring children into casualty to learn these vital skills. After today’s year sixes have explored the ER (they are kept safely away from any real blood, gore or trauma) they are taught what to do with a choking toddler, an electrocuted uncle, a bike accident or a knocked-out tooth. They are then taught CPR and how to call 999 properly.

The clear message throughout is “always put your own safety first”. The children learn, for instance, what to do with a syringe in the park and why it is a bad idea to try out your first aid skills on a collapsed drunkard with a potentially vicious dog.

Professor Keith Willett, head of trauma at the John Radcliffe, who established I.M.P.S. 10 years ago, says the idea is not just to teach children first aid but to “teach them to recognise potentially dangerous situations”. Getting them at the right age is key. “They are most likely to take risks that result in injury or death between the ages of 11 and 17,” he says “We take 10-year-olds so we can catch them before they start. Everyone takes risks, but the danger comes when you misjudge a situation.”

I.M.P.S., says Willett, is the only “evidence based” scheme around – and the only one run in NHS casualty departments. The idea is that the kids retain more information, and take the subject more seriously if brought into a medical setting. A large, published research study found that children who had taken the I.M.P.S. course were more likely to attempt life-saving procedures than those who had not. They were more likely to learn and, crucially, retain basic life-saving skills, and they were more likely to perceive risks.

This year, a 10-year-old who had done an I.M.P.S. course saved his friend’s life by performing back slaps when his friend choked on sweets and turned blue. When their teacher collapsed in class with chest pains, year six pupils in a Sunderland school, also fresh from an I.M.P.S. course, called an ambulance, checked her breathing and airway and put her in the recovery position. An 11-year-old I.M.P.S. graduate dislodged a bar of soap from his two-year-old brother’s throat, and a 10-year-old called 999 and performed first aid on her diabetic mother, who collapsed and fell down a flight of stairs.

The year sixes certainly seem positive after a morning in casualty. “Before today,” says Bryony Jones, 11, “if something had happened I’d have been scared to do anything in case it was wrong. Now I think I wouldn’t panic – I’d be much more likely to help.” Her friend Chloe Ebsworth, 11, agrees. “I learned loads. I didn’t know that if someone falls off their bike you don’t touch them because their neck or back might be injured. Also, I didn’t always wear my helmet before, but I definitely will now.”