Danger! Is this the end for class trips?

This term schools must appoint a senior teacher to look after all off-site outings. Phil Revell explains the thinking behind the new posts

You know how it is: back at work for a few days and some people are already organising their holidays. September is the traditional time for planning school trips, although anyone who has ever been away with a group knows that "holiday" is not an accurate description of the 24-hour-a-day responsibility involved in an educational visit.

Schools run trips because the benefits are self-evident. Children visibly grow on these visits and, with the 9-to-4 curriculum so structured, teachers welcome the opportunity to create a learning experience free from targets, assessment or inspection.

But tragedies make everyone nervous. There were seven young people killed last year; since 1985, there have been nearly 50 deaths.

Some trips appear to have gone ahead with very little real planning. The government response has been to tighten up the guidance and ask every school to appoint an educational visits co-ordinator.

This will be a senior management post with significant responsibility. The co-ordinators will oversee visits, establish risk-management procedures, ensure that leaders and accompanying teachers are properly prepared and arrange additional training where necessary.

Some union leaders thought that such new posts would be a poisoned chalices with few takers. But Alan Humbert disagrees. He should know.

"I suppose I'm doing the job already," he says. He is the outdoor pursuits co-ordinator at Penryn school, Cornwall. The sports college is one of three in the country specialising in outdoor education. Mr Humbert has responsibility for off-site trips and educational visits.

He's been at the school for 25 years, first as an art and ceramics teacher, then as the "trips" co-ordinator, organising the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme and building an ambitious programme of outdoor pursuits, including sailing and fell walking.

"Lot of parents know me from when I took them on trips when they were pupils," he said. "We use a mix of teaching staff and outside instructors for courses. We have people who are experienced, being assisted by instructors with the appropriate qualifications."

This is the model the Department for Education would like to see in every school. The new guidance establishes three categories of outdoor educational visit:

* Simple country walks or local field studies in "safe" environments: they are low risk and can be safely supervised by a teacher after minimal additional training.

* Open country walking and activities that might be included in a Duke of Edinburgh bronze programme. These now call for additional training. Local education authorities or governing bodies will need to have approved leaders as "competent".

* High-risk activities, which include canoeing, climbing and sailing, moorland walking and open water swimming. To supervise these, teachers will have to have undergone specific training, ideally linked to a nationally recognised qualification.

The visits co-ordinator will have the job of ensuring that trips are properly planned and led. In most schools there already will be someone like Alan Humbert doing this job, but the Government's intention is to make the role more formal and establish clear links to the expert advice that should be available within the local education authority.

In larger schools that implies a promoted post. Applicants are likely to be teachers like Alan Humbert, experienced trip leaders who may have qualifications in one of the outdoor pursuits disciplines. The role doesn't have to be filled by a teacher. At least one school The TES spoke to was considering appointing an outdoor pursuits instructor to co-ordinate an expanded outdoor education curriculum at the school.

Headteachers' organisations have given a broad welcome to the new guidance. Penryn's head, Marie Hunter, didn't see the new requirements as onerous or burdensome, although she was concerned that some heads would take exactly that view.

"It worries me that some schools will see this and want to knock trips on the head," she said."But if I'm expecting a teacher to take a trip, along with the responsibility for children that entails, then my responsibility is to ensure that the teacher is properly trained."

Some teachers see the risk assessments demanded by health and safety legislation as bureaucratic and time-consuming. Alan Humbert disagrees. "I see it as part of the preparation for the visit," he says. "If it's ongoing, it isn't onerous."

Penryn has generic assessments that can be pulled out and amended where necessary. "Teachers can pull out risk assessments on minibus trips, trips to coastal areas and so on."

He also runs an in-school programme that teaches children about risk. "Through the winter I teach a course which all of our children will follow. They do orienteering and problem solving. We build an awareness of risk, things like emergency procedures, common dangers, such as hypothermia."

As the new guidance takes effect, many authorities will be running training for their schools. Buckinghamshire has a programme for heads planned, with training for visits co-ordinators and school party leaders to follow. In very small schools these roles will be one and the same, with the head leading the trip. But most schools will have to appoint a co-ordinator - and give whoever gets the job the time and resources to plan trips properly.

"We do need to maintain a sense of proportion," says Alan Humbert. "There are risks in life. As a teacher I prepare for eventualities that I pray are not going to happen."

phil.revell@ukonline.co.uk The new guidance can be found at www.teachernet.gov.uk. Follow the links first to "management", then "guidance" and finally "health and safety on trips"

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