Tree Safety Around Schools

Are trees in schools a safety risk?

The recent unfortunate incident where a young child was critically injured by a falling tree branch has bought this question into the spotlight. This incident occurred by a tree failure Pitt Town Public School.

What makes a tree safe? – A healthy tree is a safe tree. Tree health means the tree has a good root system, good trunk and branch structure and healthy foliage. A healthy tree in a low traffic area can be considered as safe to people.

What makes a tree dangerous? An unhealthy tree is dangerous. A tree that has been lopped or poorly pruned in the past is dangerous. Large trees in high traffic/ high target areas such as schools are potentially dangerous.


In the Northern Territory; “Aidan Bott died after he was struck by a large tree branch while sitting with friends in the courtyard of the Catholic St Mary’s Primary School in Darwin.

Last year the Coroner, Greg Cavanagh, found his death was preventable as the tree had been left for a “dangerously lengthy period” without inspection or maintenance.

The Coroner recommended government agencies share information on tree safety with all schools.

In a recent report the Education Department says it’s now provided all schools with safety check lists on ground maintenance and it’s also working on a tree risk management plan.”

How do I know if my tree is safe? – In short have it inspected at least once by a qualified and experienced arborist. Have an aerial inspection done to ensure there are no above ground defects. Periodic annual inspections are also recommended and it is always prudent to have a tree checked after extreme weather events or after any construction works are done close to a tree.

Aerial tree inspections pick up defects that can't be seen from the ground

Aerial tree inspections pick up defects that can’t be seen from the ground.

Here are some basic steps in assessing your tree:

Step 1. The first thing to do when inspecting any tree is to look at it from a slight distance. Have a quick glance into the canopy to see if there are any broken, dead or hanging branches overhead that may fall when you walk under the canopy. If there are any hanging branches be sure not to walk under them, cordon off the area and have a tree surgeon remove the hazard. If you do need to walk under hanging branches make sure you are wearing an approved helmet. Next it is best to walk around the whole tree to assess its natural growth habit and lean.

Step 2. Check the root system. If your tree has a lean, inspect the root plate for lifting, and for any cracks in the soil which may indicate the tree is moving in the ground. Check the surrounding ground for fungi or mushrooms that may indicate the presence of decay causing organisms. Look out for any construction close to the trunk which may have encroached on the trees structural root zone.

Step 3. Staring from the base of the tree we are looking for a trunk that has good taper, ie; it is bigger at the bottom than it is up the trunk. This means the trunk flares out at the base and has some buttress roots that support the tree. From here we are inspecting the tree trunk. We are looking to see that the trunk is free of defects. We are looking out for hollows, cavities, cracks, termites nests, mushrooms, fungi growing on the trunk or unusual bulges.

Fungi on the trunk is an indicator of internal decay

Fungi on the trunk is an indicator of internal decay

Step 4. Next we are looking at the branch structure. Ask yourself: does the tree look dangerous? does it look out of proportion? is there anything unusual in the shape or look of the tree? This is where it is best to have the trained eye of an arborist look at your tree. Firstly we are looking at where the branch attaches to the trunk. We are looking for answers to these questions: Are there multiple stems coming from the one point in the tree? Has the branch got good taper where it joins the trunk? Is there a split where the branch joins? Is the fork of the branch a tight fork that is hard up against the trunk or is it a nice open fork? Does the branch have an ascending or descending habit? Are there any rubbing, crossing branches or wounds/cavities on the branch? Is the branch long with heavy foliage? Are there any dead, broken or storm damaged branches in the canopy?

Our FREE Tree Safety App for iPhone can be downloaded here:

Tree Safety App          AppStore

Please click the link below to open a basic PDF checklist that anyone can use:


So what do we do about large trees in schools? This is the question that schools need to find a solution for. Firstly I strongly believe that all school staff and children should be educated about tree safety. Secondly, all trees in schools should be identified and assessed for hazard potential. Thirdly, defective trees should be removed or pruned as recommended by a qualified arborist. Fourthly, the inspection process should be scheduled on a bi-annual basis.

How do we achieve this? All schools should have a “Tree Safety Management Policy” to ensure that its trees don’t pose a danger to members of the public, its staff and children. It’s nothing new; schools in the UK have already adopted this approach. A  Tree Safety Management Policy ensures a systematic and planned  inspection of trees is undertaken, so defective trees can be pruned or removed prior to more serious incidents occurring.

If your school or organisation needs help in developing a Tree Safety Management Policy or if you would like to book a tree inspection in the Northern Sydney, Central Coast or Newcastle Regions of NSW please visit this link to see our Tree Safety Packages or call Will on: 0402418017