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If you think your child's school has a good Sun Smart policy then you might want to double check before it's too late because just as I (and unfortunately my son) found out, using the catch phrases like: "sun aware or sun smart," doesn't necessarily mean the school will care...

Background 

On the 28th of Oct, less than 3 weeks ago as at the writing of this article, my son participated in Friday school sport  - Gala Day - where he represented his school in Australian Rules Football (AFL). Naturally, being a boy who's into sport he was excited about playing AFL for his school but as a parent and coincidentally an AFL coach I had reservations about allowing him to play because I know how unpredictable contact sport can be sometimes and the risk of accidental injury is always a worry even when the game is run as safe as possible by experienced administrators.

Nevertheless, I'm always mindful of the fact that as parents we should be careful not to wrap our children in cotton wool. Therefore, expecting the school would run a professional sports program I signed the waiver form, paid the travel bus money, and explained to my son how important it was for him to also take responsibility for his own personal safety.

I chatted to him about undertaking actions within his control to limit injury; such as, using sunscreen lotion, wearing his mouth guard, playing by the rules, and being careful in general. However, I also know that my son is only 10 years old (and an immature 10 at that) so the bottom line is as a parent I need to rely on the teachers/sports administrators to ensure my child under their care is properly supervised.

And, proper supervision (in my mind) includes reminding the kids to apply sunscreen and even help the kids apply the lotion if needed, particularly if the sport concerned is being played without a hat or appropriate clothing for hot sunny/high UV weather. 

Sun damage to my child at a school managed sporting event (image above)

The Sun Burning... 

Anyway, on the way to pick up my son from school I had a hunch he'd have his fair share of bumps and bruises, but I was totally caught off-guard when I arrived at the school to see my 10 yr old with a badly sunburnt face and shoulders! Initially, I was shocked, then I felt angry, and later this anger turned into grave concern not just because I knew my son would suffer the painful symptoms of sunburn but also for what this sun damage could potentially cause later in life.

According to the Cancer Council of Australia, skin cancer (Melanoma) is the most common type of cancer contracted by younger people (between 15-44 years) and 95-99% of skin cancers are caused by exposure to the sun! Therefore, I have good cause to be angry and alarmed by my son being burnt to a crisp!  

As soon as we arrived home, I applied an after sun aloe vera based treatment in order to try and limit the sun damage and soothe the discomfort my son was already feeling from the burns. Needless to say, he suffered through several days of pain and discomfort due to his injuries and although they may not be classed as "serious" it still should not have happened and it still may have serious health repercussions later down the track - who knows?   

So, how did this happen?

The first thing I said to my son was, "did you use sunscreen today?" He said he did... Obviously, there wasn't enough sunscreen used or it wasn't applied correctly and as most parents know children are terrible at applying sunscreen. Firstly, young children often do a rush job of applying sunscreen lotion because they want to get out and play as soon as possible and secondly they usually lack the experience to apply it correctly.

So, after probing my son for more answers, it became clear to me that his sunburn was due to a lack of supervision. Basically, there was sunscreen provided; however, there was limited or no proper supervision given by the teachers during the initial application or further re-applications throughout the day. Caps or hats are inappropriate when playing AFL and the jumpers are short sleeved with big necks, which exposes the upper arms and shoulders to the sun. 

Furthermore, this sporting activity was held on the cusp of our subtropical summer, which means it's already hotter than most places around the world with temperatures sometimes reaching 40ºC (104ºF) at this time of year and it's certainly not a good time for AFL to be played. Being an AFL coach myself, I know how difficult it is to manage players in hot weather and that's why our football season finished months ago. Therefore, if this type of sport is to be played under these conditions extra vigilance should be taken by staff to ensure players are protected from the sun and heat.        

Let's not sugarcoat it, children don't get sunburnt unless adults around them fail to look after their welfare - plain and simple health and safety were overlooked by my son's sports teachers on the day.  

The hypocrisy of the school system

Whilst I have my foot on the snake's head furiously tapping my keyboard writing this article, please indulge me as I digress some more about the hypocrisy of our school system/s across most of the western society we live in...

Ironically, a few days before this sunburn incident the school informed me that my son was "suspected" of giving out lollies to other students - as if this was a major problem... His teacher requested I take action and advise them of what is going on. As it turned out, my son had been given lollies from another child so it wasn't him all. I guess the school's concern is children sharing food that could possibly be contaminated (or something) but the reason I'm mentioning it is to highlight how quickly the staff is to react and jump on parents and students whilst  at the same time squibbing their own responsibilities. 

These days, schools love to lecture parents on what is "best" for our kids; for example, what we should give our children to eat in their lunch boxes, compulsory parent nights on bullying, or fill in log forms to prove we supervise our child's homework. Stray outside of these boundaries and you quickly get informed... I once had a school lunch returned home because a teacher thought homemade beef jerky was "unhealthy" not kidding! But, that's another story. Yet they seem to be rather liberal when it comes to them giving out cupcakes or sweets to kids as incentives to behave in class etc. Strangely, it's ok for teachers to break the rules for the greater good but not so for parents and this double standard drives me CRAZY.

I could go on and on with dozens of examples of hypocrisy I have personally witnessed from both Private schools and State (yes we've tried both) and perhaps I will write about them another time, but for now, I'll get back to the SunSmart disaster story. 

What action did we take?

I know my son's school will read this article because I have emailed the link to the Admin Office and Principal. Plus, I advised the Deputy Principal in person and received a warning by him about the legalities - I had a feeling he wasn't too happy with me...  

It can be difficult sometimes to take any action or complain about such incidences to school administrations. Like most State run institutions they're big, clunky, slow moving, beasts with arse covering being one of the few things they are actually good at doing. Like I alluded to earlier, schools are quick to jump on parents when they or their child does the wrong thing according to the school's regulations (or the teacher's/principal's interpretation of it) yet they're usually slow to react when it's them under scrutiny.    

Initially, I didn't report the sunburn incident to the school because I lacked faith anything would get done about it and I worry that my complaint could make my son a target by nasty teachers wanting revenge for an arse kicking (they may or may not have got). Backlash and repercussions for taking on the school over a particular issue or incident are very real and it would be naive of me to think that writing this article will help improve the "system" when in fact it's likely to make my son's remaining 13 months at primary less welcoming.

Nevertheless, I didn't serve my country for 21 years in the Army and have pieces of my body missing in the process to return to civilian life and become a shrinking daisy and I don't expect my son to be one either. So I will say it how I see it, and I'm not afraid of the consequences for myself or my son.      

And, "seeing" is exactly what I did... Unconvinced that my son's sunburn episode was a once off, I decided to attend the next sports day. Luckily, my wife was also able to come with me as she happened to be on leave from work at the time - four eyes are better than two.

The first thing we noticed as the boys prepared to run out onto the field was the lack of sunscreen being applied so we quickly pulled our son aside and ensured he was fully lotioned up. Naturally, we had to stay out of the way as this was a school activity so we couldn't get too involved but at least we had peace of mind our son wouldn't come home burnt today.     

Having said that, there were other things we saw on our visit to the school Gala day that concerned us as we watched our young son run onto the field and proudly play is favourite game. It wasn't until about halfway through the match that we realised most children were not wearing mouth guards and our son wasn't wearing his mouth guard either! So after the first game we got his attention and called him over asking him where his mouth guard was? He said he'd forgot to put it in during the rush to get ready and left it in his sports bag so we made him go and get it before the next game. 

Sadly, if we weren't there he likely wouldn't have worn his mouth guard at all because unlike the AFL U10's team I coach, there was NO ONE reminding kids to use mouth guards and for a contact sport, I find that reprehensible. 

For the record, I did get the opportunity to report the sunburn incident to the school on that Friday, but I doubt anything will be done about it because it wouldn't be the first time I reported something to this school and never received feedback.     

Supervision is the key

You might think that my 10-year-old son using sunscreen or remembering to wear his mouth guard is his own personal responsibility; however, if you do think like that you either don't have kids or are out of touch. Children, particularly boys, are notoriously forgetful, easily distracted, and prone to poor judgment or rash decision-making and that's why we don't recognise them as adults until they're 18. 

Therefore, children need constant supervision, rules, and management to keep them in order and more importantly SAFE.  

Unfortunately, on the day my wife and I visited this school run sports activity we witnessed a distinct lack of supervision and this lack of supervision had the potential to contribute to a child incurring a major injury. The teachers for my son's team were not being vigilant and they were not taking fundamental safety steps to mitigate the risks for the type of activity being conducted. Teachers were not insisting on sunscreen, teachers were not reminding children to wear proper protective equipment such as mouth guards and teachers were not really in control of much at all, from my point of view. In fact, the kids representing our school looked like they were running a muck and were notably less organised than some other school teams. 

I would go further to say, the teachers running my son's team demonstrated a lack of training to be organising such an activity and they didn't seem to know anything about the sport being played.    

Having said that, as a junior football coach and home dad of boys I can say with fair authority that organising boys in sport or most other activities can be a lot harder than girls. Boys generally are far more immature than girls at the same age and even boys of the same age can differ dramatically in maturity. Although, maturity does tend to level out across all boys in their late teens. 

Therefore, by default teachers should be prepared to exercise extra supervision when administrating groups of boys. You'd think being "teachers" they would know better, but from the evidence I have seen over the past several years teachers are either undertrained when it comes to dealing with boys or they just don't care about boys as much as girls. I see teaching methods and discipline techniques with respect to boys growing more reactional rather than preventative and this trend worries me greatly.

The last parental word  

In conclusion, I feel let down by the schooling system and our recent experience shows me that despite the National SunSmart Program and Sun Safety guidelines for schools on the QLD Government Education Website, school children in Australia are still at risk.

Good supervision through vigilance, knowledge, and training is the key to prevention of injury or illness. Sadly, in my son's case the lack of supervision by his teachers during a school sporting activity contributed to a sunburn injury. I would go as far to say that MOST negative incidences or issues at school's (such as bullying) could be prevented by timely intervention due to good supervision by teachers.

Sure, I accept children also have to be responsible and play their part in staying safe, following rules and behaving. However, kids will be kids, as they say, so if we can't leave them alone at home by law until they're 12 why aren't we supervising them more at school to prevent things like this happening? 

Personally, this latest incident (and a few other things concerning my son's schooling) has woken a beast within me who is keen to write more about parenting and especially about the frustrations of our schooling system in general. However, I'm secretly hoping my son's school improves in several areas so I have less to write about... in a local sense anyway.        

I urge all parents reading this, wherever in the world you may be, to please be sun aware with your children and ensure their schools are practising sun safe not just preaching it. Also, perhaps go a step further and check that your school properly supervises other events by popping in and seeing what's going on for yourself if you get the opportunity. 

I'll be advising our school about this article in the hope it helps to prompt them to educate their teachers in Sun Safety and revise/improve their own sun protection policies.

Feel free to share your experiences good or bad in the comments section below about sun safety at your child's school or elsewhere.  

Don't forget to share this article as it may help warn others... Thanks.      

Update... 

For anyone who is interested, I thought I would give an update on this article around the two-week mark since its original release.    

Not surprisingly (but still disappointingly) I had no contact at all over the incident despite reporting it in person and subsequently writing this article then sending it to the Principal's office and Admin Office.

This "no response" is typical of schools and Government institutions in general. In other words, it's standard operating procedure to ignore the complaint and hope that the issue goes away and often it does because individuals lack the understanding and resources to push further. So, rather than the school (in this case) owning the complaint and issuing and apology or better still explaining how they will improve their system, they go to ground and move on.

Nevertheless, this isn't to say when we speak up that our voice is muted by the corrupt public service (mostly leftist) machine. Or, if we choose not to fight on, our initial complaint is in vein. Not at all, in fact, the main reason I sent the email to the Admin Office as well (instead of just the Principal) was because I know how big Govt institutions work and I know gossip spreads like wildfire within these organisations. The office ladies will chat, the teachers (majority females) will take advantage to backstab their colleagues to jostle for promotions and better positioning within the group, and the Principal will know everyone else knows so action will inevitably be taken to ensure the school's sun safe policy is strengthened... We just won't hear about it.  

Actually, only a few days ago the Principal called a snap ban on lunchtime outdoor play at the school due to a particularly hot sunny day... Hmmm, interesting how being Sun Smart is now in the front of mind - I wonder why.  

Further update...       

I'm pleased to report that the Principal did finally contact me during the last week of school for the year and discussed the sunburn incident with me. 

He told me that a new policy will be introduced at the school whereby all sporting events must have a "sunscreen stand" including a teacher supervising the children applying sunscreen.

The teachers who were supervising my son's sport on the day he got burnt have been apparently "spoken to."

At the end of the day, I'm happy overall with the school's response and action they are taking. I do understand sun protection is a three-way street between student-parent-teacher with all parties having a responsibility to ensure they do their bit to keep school children safe from sunburn; however, I stand by my protest and feel justified for calling the school out on this particular issue.

Time to close the book on this one, but that's not to say I won't be watching the school next year for any more indiscretions because I will be...       

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