Should Children Wear High Visibility Vests?

19 December 2017 · 7 comments

in Early Years Outdoors, Health & Wellbeing, Interesting Issues & Hot Topics, Technologies, Urban, Whole School

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Every now and then I am copied into a comment on a social media around the use of high-vis vests outside. In the education and childcare sectors, the subject seems to create much debate and discussion. It has been further fuelled by Amanda Spielman, the current Ofsted Chief Inspector, singling out high vis vests in a well-publicised article about safety culture in schools earlier this year. She questions the necessity of high vis vests on school visits that “does nothing for children’s development and learning.

The thrust of her comments are valid. Ofsted, like HSE, want to promote and encourage a broad and rich range of educational experiences. She does not want to see off-site activities stopped or hampered by well-intentioned but risk-averse gestures.

The challenge is, of course, how front-line educators and school managers interpret these comments. It is tempting to jump to a quick conclusion such as “Ofsted don’t like high vis vests.” However I would like to think that all regulatory bodies would prefer each and every establishment to take a more considered and reflective approach (forgive the pun).

So the aim of this blog post is to do a little digging around the subject to help educators make a sensible assessment on a  case-by-case basis. The more I read into this matter, the more I am convinced that there are no blanket rules but there’s some good wider thinking to be done.

I began by searching for evidence, factual and research information about children wearing high vis jackets outside. Despite healthy conversations on social media and an online search, I cannot find any information to this effect.

Is there a need to wear high visibility clothing as part of a school’s approach to road safety?

There is much education material around road safety and encouraging whole school approaches. This Road Safety Education document provides a range of links, suggested activities and so on. When you look at the images, children cycling are wearing high vis vests, but those in a pedestrian context are not.

There is lots about cycling and the use of fluorescent and reflective gear. This recent article provides a useful summary:

  • Fluorescent clothing is useful during the day but in darkness is not useful.
  • Lights and reflective clothing work best during dark conditions.
  • That the movement of reflective strips on cyclists’ ankles and knees seems to be the key to real reductions in accidents.
  • Flashing daytime lights also resulted in less collisions.

However, the debate remains fierce, with one small study suggesting that wearing high vis jackets changes the behaviour of cyclists, who are more likely to presume they are more prominent and thus cycle further away from the kerb.

Therefore, when wearing high vis clothing, are we a little more blasé and a little less vigilant? The response from one young child, may suggest we need to be careful about how we explain a decision to wear high vis vests in relation to road safety and a child’s developmental level of understanding:

When asking a child why he thought he should have one on? He replied, “Stops me from being hit by a car.” We’ve removed common sense and created a switch off culture to an awareness of risk and self preservation, creating a super hero syndrome, where the high vis vest is an all saving cloak.

In my  new setting, I simply removed them and haven’t provided staff or children with them. My thinking was in line with the laws of probability, and a common sense approach to benefit risk assessments, asking how likely is it that a vehicle will strike the group whilst walking in and around our community? Steven White, Manager of Tiptoes Nursery and EY Consultant.

Let’s also remember that cyclists share the road with car users. In most instances, school groups walk on pavements and cross the road as much as possible at designated crossing points. The Highway Code – Rules for Pedestrians should always be followed. Rule 3 states:

Help other road users to see you. Wear or carry something light-coloured, bright or fluorescent in poor daylight conditions. When it is dark, use reflective materials (eg armbands, sashes, waistcoats, jackets, footwear), which can be seen by drivers using headlights up to three times as far away as non-reflective materials.

Rule 5 is specific to organised walks:

Organised walks. Large groups of people walking together should use a pavement if available; if one is not, they should keep to the left. Look-outs should be positioned at the front and back of the group, and they should wear fluorescent clothes in daylight and reflective clothes in the dark. At night, the look-out in front should show a white light and the one at the back a red light. People on the outside of large groups should also carry lights and wear reflective clothing.

Be aware that the Highway Code is subject to changes, so do check regularly when updating your risk benefit assessments or have a new group of children to work with and so on.

Is there a need for high visibility clothing for some tasks we ask children to undertake?

It is helpful to consider which groups of people need to wear high visibility clothing and why. It is a form of personal protective equipment (PPE). Normally it tends to be those who work around moving vehicles, on construction sites, where dangerous machinery is being operated and in dark areas. Some hunters have to wear them to avoid accidental shooting. Curiously, not all high-vis and bright colours can be seen by some animal species.

Thus if your children start role-playing any of these jobs, then it is an opportunity to have discussions around being seen, how to keep ourselves safe and what professionals in these types of work do to keep themselves safe. At this point, high vis clothing may be part of the dressing up available for role play.

If your off-site excursion includes visiting places where workers need high visibility clothing, then as a group of visitors, you may also need to wear similar PPE. Common sense says, do not take children into dangerous places. If you know hunting and shooting parties are in a woodland, don’t go there. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code provides some advice on areas and activities to avoid intruding on.

Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have produced Guidance on High Visibility Clothing. This is surprisingly useful to consider.

  • Is it suitable for the risk? There’s different sorts of high-vis clothing for different purposes. There’s a lot of options to explore.
  • Is it suitable for the job? For example, will wearing a high vis vest snag and catch on vegetation in a woodland, impacting on safety and enjoyment?
  • Is it suitable for the wearer? Does the high vis clothing fit properly and comfortably, without being too tight or too loose. Does a child want to wear this item of clothing? How have they been involved in the decision making around this?
  • Is it compatible with other forms of PPE? Are your children already wearing reflective clothing which makes an additional item unnecessary?
  • Are there any standards which the clothing should meet? Yes – BS EN 471. It rates the levels of conspicuousness and retro reflectivity.

Will the wearing of high visibility vests reduce the chances of a child getting lost?

Some types of bright clothing make children more easily seen in some outdoor environments, in some weather or lighting conditions and at certain times of the day. However the need for high vis, reflective tabs, lights and so on needs careful and precise consideration. For instance, on a bright summer’s day in an urban environment, high vis vests may not stand out much more than everyday bright clothing.

The concern about needing to be seen is usually around concern about a child wandering off or getting lost. I have yet to find research or evidence that wearing high vis vests reduces this incidence. Clothing is no substitute for good preparation and practice which includes:

  • Children knowing the working boundaries.
  • Children understanding and being able to gather when asked to do so
  • Children knowing what to do if they realise they are lost or no longer with their group. This requires careful teaching in line with the children’s developmental understanding.
  • Deployment of adults. Is there an adult on general site duty that is not taken up with a group activity who can informally do frequent head counts and keep an eye on specific children who may need this.
  • An ethos of mutual trust, respect and responsibility – that includes effective communication, looking out for each other and looking after oneself.
  • Tight protocols in place around the collection and drop off of children.
  • An outdoor clothing policy that promotes young children wearing bright clothing rather than camouflage colours. This is more about spotting a still child who is not moving – camouflage is a combination of stillness and blending into the environment. Bear in mind this advice is context specific and on a bright day in an urban environment, homogeneity may be the key such as everyone wearing a similar T-shirt. Likewise, very young children when lost, may have a tendency to hide away.
  • Having missing child procedures in place and practising what to do.
  • Considering whether there is a greater need for adults to wear high vis clothing rather than children – such as following the Highway Code advice for groups?

The above can be taught in a playful and fun way. Very few children will not manage this – you will know who they are and to keep an extra eye out and build support strategies into your sessions. Most statutory guidance, if it exists in a country, is based upon being able to see or hear a child, not necessarily both at any given time.

Does wearing the use of a high vis vest impact on children’s development and learning?

Again, I can find no studies that suggest either a positive or negative impact. Thus we need to come to our own conclusions based upon our specific context.

What is important is that all stakeholders – children, parents, staff feel able to express their views, have them listened to and to have the opportunity to engage in meaningful conversations around the subject, if needed. This is particularly important if you have children who do not want to wear a high vis vest. Flexibility is the key and an acceptance that in some situations it might matter and in many others, it really doesn’t.

Often behind a concern, lies an unhappy experience. If wearing a high-vis vest enables children to have an off-site experience and gives some adults peace of mind, then do the benefits outweigh the negative connotations? As the Highway Code suggests, perhaps it is the adults who need to be wearing the vests, not the children. Perhaps there are simple alternatives: the wearing of an item of clothing, a wrist band that has the school contact details that will suffice.

When I first started taking my nursery class out into a local woodland we used them purely so we could spot them amongst the greenery on dark days. Then I visited Norway and the idea there was that the onus was on the children to keep sight of an adult rather than the other way round and we stopped using them in the woods. We did use them when walking on the footpath to a local nursing home in December just to make us all visible to cars. I personally feel that it was more about my confidence – once I was more sure of myself about taking children off site, the hi vis vests didn’t seem so necessary. I’m just evolving my practice. Kierna Corr, EY Teacher.


Taking a risk benefit approach

The wearing of high vis vests requires a sensible and sensitive thought in the context of making our outdoor experiences a normal, happy part of the education for the children in our care. We need to avoid giving the message that life is more dangerous outside, rather, we need to demonstrate adaptability to different situations.

By considering the benefits of both wearing and not wearing high vis vests, then a more balanced perspective can be undertaken:

Wearing a fluorescent high vis vest with reflective strips (children and adults): BENEFITS

  • There is a sense of group belonging
  • The group is visible during poor weather, at night,  during low seasonal daylight and in environments where vegetation can hide or camouflage children
  • There can be good discussions about the type of material used, the differences between reflective strips and fluorescent colours.
  • Experiments with different types and colours of fluorescent and reflective strips can happen – this can explain why there  is a range for different jobs and purposes.
  • It’s a springboard into many different conversations about personal safety, getting lost and road safety.
  • Judicious and thoughtful use can promote sensible, positive messages about personal safety, getting lost and road safety.

Wearing a fluorescent high vis vest with reflective strips (children and adults): RISKS

  • Can create a false sense of security: adults and children change their behaviours accordingly thereby in some instances making an activity more risky.
  • Can send a confusing and risk-averse message to children if worn inappropriately and a message of lack of trust, particularly if only children are expected to wear high vis vests
  • In crowded education places, wearing high-vis jackets may result in a group blending in, rather than standing out if lots of groups are wearing. A school uniform or other form of identification may be more appropriate.
  • A range of fluorescent colours may be needed to account for environmental and seasonal changes. For example, bright yellow jackets will not stand out in an autumn woodland if there’s lots of yellow leaves.
  • Mud and dirt can reduce the brightness and reflective properties of high vis jackets. So wearing for play purposes may reduce safety when walking back home.
  • Too much print on high vis vests can detract from the purpose of making the vest visible. Likewise, wearing a back pack will reduce the impact.
  • Some adults and children may not want to wear and mediation/persuasion/negotiation needed.

NOT wearing a high vis vest with reflective strips: BENEFITS

  • A sense of group belonging has to be created in a deeper way, beyond an item of safety clothing
  • Adults have to recognise individual children. This makes head counts more effective.
  • Potentially saves money, especially as different sizes, colours and types needed for different ages, the environmental conditions and function.
  • Reliance on other personal safety and road safety approaches. Possibly greater attention to detail as a result.

NOT wearing a high vis vest with reflective strips: RISKS

  • Children and adults may be less visible in poor weather, lighting conditions and at night
  • Reliance on children’s family to supply clothing that is bright and with reflective tabs.
  • This may result in lost opportunities during the dark hours in winter for outdoor experiences if educators feel unable to facilitate because of safety concerns.
  • Highway Code provides specific guidance – thus carrying or wearing other items to meet this requirement to be met.

Finally I appreciate that this is an emotive issue. I would like to thank everyone who commented on Facebook and really helped with my own understanding of the issues.  Please do leave comments – and also allow me to update the blog post to reflect these as needed as I know there will be perspectives I have not considered yet.

PS This excellent blog post came out about road safety. Check out the video. No high vis vests are featured.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Jo phillips December 19, 2017 at 20:24

Hi… Juliet. So much info in this blog. Really helpful and I found myself going ‘hummmm’. For those of us who don’t work with the same children each week it doesn’t solve everything but it’s a great basis for creating teacher information sheets. Thank you.


Juliet Robertson December 19, 2017 at 21:31

Funnily enough I did toy with this idea and a flow chart to help with decision making. But the post took me 2 days to create so I didn’t feel I could afford the time.

It’s a really interesting conundrum. In some instances, yes, great and in others, no… good for making us all make a professional judgement though.


Julie White December 20, 2017 at 06:53

Great balanced post. Since you asked for our feedback we reflected on it too. With me no longer being on site each week, washing them became problematic. So we took them off and children wear brighter coloured waterproofs instead. I guess initially when we opened they were used for our own confidence and to ensure we met our safeguarding responsiblities. We needed to know we had covered all basis. But with time comes confidence and as I said on fb, today it works for us but I’m open to changing that view. And we did. I still think it comes down to each individual setting and berating others for wearing them I don’t think is helpful, as your post says there pros and cons, as with everything and what works for one may not for another.


Juliet Robertson December 20, 2017 at 07:24

Thanks for a thoughtful response, Julie. It was your own and another bush-based practitioner that made me think quite carefully about natural contexts. Setting routines and developing practice takes time. Using high vis jackets may be part of this for some groups. It’s all context based. And I agree, berating and lecturing about the rights and wrongs doesn’t help. But good reflective conversations do 🙂 I’ve learned a lot from writing this post.


Daniel Ridley-Ellis December 20, 2017 at 12:24

A minor comment, but BS EN 471 is withdrawn standard.
It is replaced by BS EN ISO 20471.
There is a difference in classification between “high visibility”, “enhanced visibility” and “visibility”. This standard covers the first of those.

More relevant here: visibility clothing for non-professional uses is covered by BS EN 1150, the scope of which is:

“This standard specifies the optical performance requirements for high-visibility clothing to be worn by adults and by juveniles, and designed for non-professional use. High-visibility clothing for non-professional use is intended to signal the user’s presence visually in any daylight condition and when illuminated by vehicle headlights or search lights in the dark as well as lit up in urban roads.”


Juliet Robertson December 20, 2017 at 14:33

Hello Daniel

Thanks so much for providing this update – you clearly know your standards and better than the HSE website does 🙂 I’ll add your note to the section in due course.


vicky Wood December 26, 2017 at 13:57

Hi Juliet this has been a highly emotive subject in our Pre-School over the last few years. In the early days we asked children to wear hi vis vests on outings and in our local woods. As our Forest Schools practice has developed and understanding of risk benefit has developed I no longer get children to wear them I also think it takes too long getting 25 children ready and asking them to put on vests which don’t appear to benefit anyone, however some staff members argue that they help keep children safe. We have a staff training day next week on outdoor planning and developing our outdoors ( thanks to recently attending your brilliant training). This will again be on the agenda and I will be showing them your blog.


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